PORTLAND — Billy Johnson leaned back in his chair, held up his iPad and chided his classmate in a joking tone.
“Ahmed’s just jealous because I write Arabic better than he does,” he said.
Johnson – a blond-haired, football jersey-wearing junior at Deering High School – was one of nine students in the Arabic language class, including four girls wearing head scarves and several boys in sneakers and jeans. Each was busy scribbling Arabic characters into their tablets with their fingertips while their teacher, Abdullahi Ahmed, called out new words for them to spell.
“I thought it would be pretty neat to learn about the culture, and learn a different style of writing – right to left instead of left to right,” Johnson said of his decision to enroll in the course.
This year, Deering High School became the first school in Portland (and perhaps all of Maine) to offer Arabic as a foreign language class. Ten students are taking the class; 15 more will join next semester.
The class caters to all abilities and grades. Two students are fluent in reading, writing and speech. Six students have had some exposure to Arabic, whether at home or at their mosque. Two students are rank amateurs, including senior Cleo Barker.
“It’s like a one-room schoolhouse,” Barker said.
Deering High School serves a diverse student population. About 250 students speak a language other than English in their homes. In all, 22 different languages can be overheard in the vintage hallways of the 1920s-era building.
“We see many strengths in this diversity,” said Carlos Gomez, chairman of the school’s World Languages Department.
Gomez was instrumental in getting the course off the ground in September, but the seeds were sown about two years ago, when Portland Public Schools received a $5 million, multi-year grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, he said.
The school is also one of 34 U.S. high schools that has joined the International Studies School Network, an offshoot of the Asia Society, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller. The goal of the international network is to “develop college-ready, globally competent high school graduates,” according to its website.
Gomez said the language course, which is a pilot program, is an effort to “honor the Arabic speakers and writers that are here, and offer it to non-Arabic writers and speakers as a potential way to become globally competent.”
“By the end of high school, students will be proficient in investigating the world,” Gomez said. “They will be able to recognize their own perspective and others’ perspectives and the underlying values there.”
Gomez said there are 5.5 full-time-equivalent language teachers at Deering. The school has strong French and Spanish programs, but German and Latin were cut from the curriculum about five years ago due to budget constraints, Gomez said.
Arabic is challenging for beginners. In addition to writing and reading from right to left, the language also features a 28-letter alphabet and some tricky pronunciation.
“The alphabet was definitely an obstacle at first,” Barker said. “There are four different H sounds, and it was difficult to distinguish between them at first.”
Despite the challenges, Barker said she jumped at the opportunity to study Arabic.
“I’ve taken a lot of Spanish and a little bit of French, but I wanted something that wasn’t Latin-based just to see what the difference is,” she said.
Barker is applying to Northeastern University, University of Chicago and several others, and hopes to major in foreign languages. Languages interest her, she said, but she’s not pursuing a particular career at this point.
“It’s more about expanding general horizons than a career path,” Barker said.
Still, there are plenty of job opportunities for Arabic-speaking Americas, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Education. Arabic was identified as a critical priority by the U.S. departments of agriculture, commerce, defense, energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, transportation, Veterans Affairs, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of State.
Sophomore Ahmed Ali, who was busy challenging Johnson’s handwriting on the iPad, said he was exposed to Arabic from his birth in Egypt, but lost touch with it when he moved to the United States at age 3.
“I forgot a lot of stuff, so Mr. Ahmed is teaching me to write and read it,” he said.
Ahmed, a Somali refugee, has lived in the United States since 2000 and has been working for the school district since 2004. Until this year, he was exclusively a science teacher.
Last year, Ahmed collaborated with Gomez to create the class. Originally, they considered forming an Arabic club, but Gomez pushed for a language class.
The class often focuses on culture, however. On Monday, each student selected an Arabic-speaking country and will soon prepare a traditional meal from that country and serve it to the class, Ahmed said.
The class might be new to Maine, but that distinction will be short lived, Ahmed predicted.
“Deering is spearheading this, but I think a lot of schools will follow suit,” he said. “That’s my expectation.”
The intimate size of the classroom promotes a friendly, collaborative atmosphere between the different cultures, which isn’t necessarily the case elsewhere in school, Barker said. There’s nothing sinister at work; it’s just the nature of schools.
“Approaching people that are different from you takes you out of your comfort zone, so a lot of people don’t try it,” she said. “But here, it’s such a small class, you get to know everybody really well.”
Teacher Abdullahi Ahmed leads a vocabulary lesson in Arabic on Monday, Oct. 7, at Deering High School. The school is the first in Portland (and perhaps all of Maine) to offer Arabic as a foreign-language class.