Less than a year after Arab Americans in Orange County celebrated the official recognition of Little Arabia in Anaheim, some find themselves fighting to preserve a previous victory – an Arabic program at a local high school.

It comes as Anaheim Union High School District officials raised concerns about the program’s low enrollment and the drying up of federal COVID funds.

But some residents and community groups say the program – the first of its kind in Orange County – is essential for the Arab American community and beyond.

“It’s a community that for decades in Anaheim has felt marginalized, ignored and invisible. and we just were able to break out of that cycle with the symbolic recognition of Little Arabia,” said Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations – Greater Los Angeles.

“We don’t get to celebrate for too long. We take one step forward and are moved two steps back,” Alyoush said in a phone interview, adding the community will step up to help save the Arabic program.

Anaheim Union High School District officials say they’re cutting Arabic language courses at Western High School after five years because of funding concerns and low enrollment.

Superintendent Mike Matsuda said in a Friday phone interview officials are working on helping four students complete a second year of Arabic to meet A-G graduation requirements with the expected end of the program.

“We’re working on getting them into an online Arabic program at one of the community colleges and then get them tutoring and support so that they can pass Arabic,” he said. 

“That’s the number one priority.”

For some students the Arabic class was more than a graduation requirement.

It gave them a home on campus.

[Read: An Arabic High School Program in OC is Getting Cut; Students Push to Save It]

“Little Arabia has finally been recognized. This would instantly set back the Middle Eastern community,” said Iain Debernitz, a Western High student in the Arabic program, at Thursday’s School board meeting.

“After all the work they put in just to be seen by the city itself, removing the program is turning the community’s victory into a struggle of two steps forward one step back.”

Debernitz, the only student to speak at the meeting, and other students have written letters to Matsuda and district trustees to get them to keep the program going.

District Spokesman John Bautista told the Voice of OC in email Thursday that the trustees would discuss possible solutions and options for the course that night at their board meeting.

That discussion never happened.

But Matsuda said the district is open to hearing proposals by community leaders for permanent funding to revisit the program.

“Even if you’d raise $100,000 It’s pretty late in the game,” Matsuda said, adding that course registration has ended.

He pointed to the district’s Korean pilot program launching from community funding, but at the same time, Matsuda added they’re looking at federal grants.

“To be honest, communities shouldn’t have to raise money. But at this point if we’re going to start something up again, we need to have something,” he said.

“At the end of the day, we didn’t have the bodies and that was four years of subsidizing.”

Ayloush said it is not fair to put the financial burden on a community, adding the decision took the Council on American Islamic Relations by surprise despite his organization helping fund the seed money for the program. 

He said the district should have expressed their concerns earlier so they could’ve formed solutions and his group is getting called by concerned community members.

“We continue to be invisible, we continue to be the last to know about something that impacts us the most,” Ayloush said. “Coming in late to talk about it, of course, makes our options much more limited today.”

Al Jabbar, a former district trustee, said in a Friday phone interview that he is working to set up a meeting with community leaders and the district for possible solutions.

“Even though we saw that there were not many students enrolled, we ended up keeping it – primarily because we knew that this is something that we needed to do,” Jabbar said. “It was something that was beneficial for the community.”

Jabbar, with support from the Council on American Islamic Relations, helped initiate the program over five years ago.

Ayloush said there was a need for the course with the growing Arab American community, but also for non-Arabs for whom the language is important religiously or from a career perspective.

But he said Western High wasn’t the best spot for the program.

“Cypress High School would have been a good choice, where there’s a larger Arabic speaking community there,” Ayloush said.

Jabbar said they picked Western High as the location because it was close to West Anaheim –  where a lot of Arab Americans live and Little Arabia.

“There were some requests to maybe have it at Cypress High School, which is another high school where we get a lot of Arab and Muslim kids going. But unfortunately, they were impacted because they had a lot of classes,” he said 

“You wouldn’t be successful in introducing another elective.”

Jabbar said it comes down to a financial aspect – especially with federal COVID bailout money for schools drying up.

“We’re funding a teacher full time for almost $80,000 to $100,000. And we only have five sections. But if you imagine, like 30 students spread around five sections, you’re looking at six per class. It doesn’t make economic sense for a district to do it,” he said.

He adds if the program does come back, students need to enroll in it.

About 42 students had registered to take the program next year.

Ayloush doesn’t think money should be the first solution if low enrollment is the problem, saying the district failed to properly market the program. 

“We could have easily helped them in the marketing of the program. We are at every mosque, we go to the businesses, we are in touch with the parents,” Ayloush said. “Many parents didn’t know it exists.”

He acknowledged that the pandemic hindered the district’s ability to market the class, but believes without including the community they’re not handling the situation correctly.

“We are on the receiving end of a decision that impacts us without ever having a say in that process,” Ayloush said.  “And we would like to change that.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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