Educating and acclimating at Central Academy
From the May, 2017 issue
"Hello! How are you?" Luay Shalabi calls out to a boy arriving at Central Academy. The early morning rain is fierce, but Shalabi, in suit and tie as usual, is greeting students near the main entrance. Ducking his head, the boy shouts back "hello!" and dashes inside.
A mother says goodbye to her daughter, who like her mom wears a head scarf, then greets Shalabi warmly in Arabic. The school's principal is such a regular presence that, if he's not outside when parents drop off their kids, they may call the office to ask "is he OK?"
The linchpin of Central Academy since it opened twenty years ago, Shalabi is proud of the school's success. BridgeMI.com named it an "academic champ" for its success with low-income students, and framed magazine covers in the hallways note honors from U.S. News. The school has 650 students from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade "and a long waiting list," says Shalabi.
Ninety percent of the students are Muslim, and 20 percent are foreign born; religion is not taught, but Arabic is. Shalabi, who speaks accented English with warmth and eloquence, visits all the classrooms every day and sometimes fills in when a teacher is absent.
He shows me the elementary wing, which has a kid-friendly intimacy. Children's artwork on display includes a drawing of a girl in a castle; block letters announce "A Book a Day Keeps Dragons Away." A poster promotes the school's goals of "nurturing academic excellence, positive character, and appreciation of cultures." (While most children come from Middle Eastern backgrounds, a few are Latino or African American.) The kids usually wear uniforms, but it's "Spirit Week," so they pack the hallways in street clothes, radiating cheerful energy.
For some, this normalcy is hard-won. "We received about twenty-seven students who came straight from the Syrian refugee camps," Shalabi tells me later in his office. "Many of these students haven't been to school for two, three, four years prior
to their coming here. Many have witnessed or experienced horrible, horrible traumas," including seeing loved ones tortured or killed.
Some of the young refugees have shared their stories with Shalabi or other trusted adults. Then there's the Syrian boy, in school for three years, who is "an excellent student," the principal says. "But I don't recall I've heard his voice once." And there are some who are angry and out of control.
"We have a social worker, we have a psychologist who works with them," Shalabi says, but more help is urgently needed. He's arranging to bring in U-M social work student interns this fall.
Even children who grew up in safety here face challenges. Many immigrant parents have a working knowledge of English but can't pass on to their children what Shalabi calls "academic language:" the vocabulary and concepts needed to thrive in subjects ranging from biology to literature. (The school employs a full-time English as a Second Language teacher.)
Despite these obstacles, Shalabi says proudly that all high school grads go on to some kind of higher education, whether it's at a trade program at WCC or the U-M.
The Trump administration's anti-immigrant policies upset many parents; Shalabi recalls a Latino mother crying in the parking lot a few months ago. But Shalabi, who was recently appointed to Ann Arbor's human rights commission, says they've been comforted by the support they've received in the community. "I have nothing but words of gratitude to local government and the people here," he says.
The school works to counter negative stereotypes about Muslims. Such misconceptions can be broken, he says, when people of different backgrounds get to know one other. "I came here with my own stereotypes about Americans," he admits. "You know that TV show Dallas. I was a fan of it!" And so he arrived here, in 1983, under the impression that all Americans were "filthy rich" and that "if you are a good person like Bobby Ewing [the ethical younger brother of bully J.R.], you will not be very successful."
One of ten children in a Palestinian family from the town of Rammun in the West Bank, Shalabi was the last to emigrate to the U.S. (He'd taught English and looked after their widowed mother until her death.) "When I first came to this country, all my brothers were in business," he recalls. "They thought I was crazy, not joining their business or going into my own. But teaching is where my heart is."
His own "first teacher," he says, was his father, a shopkeeper. Though he never went to school, Shalabi says, his father "taught himself to read and write by memorizing the Koran."
Shalabi earned a master's in teaching ESL at EMU and a doctorate in education from Wayne State. He was teaching in the Dearborn public schools when a former Rammun neighbor, Mohamad Issa, asked him to help launch Central Academy. "I came here thinking I'd stay just a year," he says, laughing.
Issa's family had emigrated in 1973, his parents choosing Ann Arbor for its educational opportunities. Their ten children, and their grandchildren, now run a collection of businesses, most visibly in real estate (Issa Properties) and restaurants (Ahmo's Middle Eastern delis). Currently, fifteen Issa kids attend Central Academy.
The Issas run the business side of the school through a company called Global Educational Excellence. The company also manages eleven other charter schools in Michigan and Ohio targeting students from Middle Eastern backgrounds, and Mohamad Issa says they hope eventually to have twenty-five. Seeing limitations in the Arab-language textbooks that are currently available, they're funding the creation of new ones.
Shalabi, fifty-nine, coaches new principals at other GEE schools (one reason he can't always greet kids in the morning). He says the Issas would be happy if he worked full-time for Global Educational Excellence. But "I would not leave this school for anything," he says. "This is my home.
[Originally published in May, 2017.]
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