When Zeinab Chami was a student at Dearborn Schools, she was surrounded by kids who looked like her. She describes the classrooms as a kind of “diverse homogeneity,” with 90 percent of students identifying as Arab American, mostly of Lebanese roots, she says.
But the faculty didn’t necessarily reflect the student body.
“I had not a single Arab American teacher until 11th grade, and then one in 12th,” Chami says.
Ten years after her 2002 graduation from Fordson High School, Chami again walked the halls, this time as a teacher. Today, about half of her colleagues are Arab Americans. “It’s important for kids to see teachers who look like them but also see a difference, too. We could always be more diverse.”
But faculty is just one piece of the diversity puzzle at Dearborn Schools. As a district that has shifted from a majority student body of Arab Americans of predominantly one background to Arab Americans that represent many ethnicities, Dearborn has chosen to take a deep educational and social dive on diversity.
Through student clubs, forward-thinking teaching methods, and emphasis on cultural competency, Dearborn elevates diversity as a strength and underscores educational experiences by making diversity a conversation that takes place every single day.
The value of self-awareness
Today, Dearborn’s student population is still largely of Arab descent, but with a broader variety of national groups, introducing both ethnic and religious diversity to students who, apart from having a Middle Eastern background, are really just average American kids.
“They are American teenagers with not a huge connection with the Middle East. They eat the food, they’ve been there maybe,” says Chami.
Newcomers, especially refugee students who have persevered through adversity, bring with them a unique strength, Chami believes. “It’s really kind of neat because that’s some diversity in our school,” she says.
Among the district’s 20,682 students, nearly 76 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, adding economic differences to the mix.
As chair of the English Language Arts Department at Fordson, Chami helps her students understand their own cultural identities.
“What’s cool about Dearborn Schools is we have the freedom to do this,” says Chami. “We have a skills-based curriculum at the high school level, at least in English. What this means is we have lots of flexibility as long as we teach certain skills. You can work on any skill with any text if you are creative enough. This is what literature is for.”
For example, in her AP Literature and 11th grade English classes, Chami helps students study the text through two lenses: the dominant culture and the individual. When students can see their own struggles in the words of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, or Malcolm X, they learn volumes about themselves, and this builds strength.
“It gives kids grit. They see the struggle and respect it….There’s value in being that self-aware,” she says.
Creating a culture of inclusion
When students are proud of their own backgrounds, they work to create a culture of inclusion, says Stacy Rumler, school social worker at Dearborn High School, which has a mix of African American, Latinx, white, Arab American, and Asian faces among its 2,200 students. At the beginning of each school year, new students are invited to small-group breakfasts where they meet students and faculty leaders so they’ll create important relationships early on. Students also have access to English Language Learners (ELL) programs if needed.
Rumler and Chaim both say that while anti-bullying programs do exist, a sense of inclusion has a louder voice within the schools. Ninth and 10th grade Dearborn High students led a recent initiative as part of this year’s district-wide Care to the Core showcase called “Why You Matter” that included 328 photos of students and in-class presentations that highlighted the strength in differences.
The program, which was inspired by a similar program in another Michigan high school, will expand this fall to include even more students.
Long before diversity became a buzzword, Dearborn high schoolers have met annually for the Student Leadership Diversity Summit. In its 10th year, the program brings together 150 students from three schools to discuss how actions can impact lives, the value of resiliency, and how to create safe, inclusive school environments. The students then develop talking points to share with their respective schools.
When students at Edsel Ford High School formed a social justice club and started talking about some tough issues, some faculty members recognized the need to introduce these topics into the academic curriculum.
“It was through that social justice club that I started noticing that at Edsel Ford we had the greatest diversity, both of new immigrants and long-standing residents of Dearborn. Here we have people from different backgrounds first being introduced to each other,” says Violet Souweidane, student empowerment facilitator at O.L. Smith Middle School. “How do we communicate with each other when you are foreign to me, you look foreign, and your ideas are foreign? These are very powerful discussions, and there were all kinds of misconceptions.”
Souweidane and her colleagues gained school board approval to create a curriculum for a social justice class where students tackle the tough concepts of societal and systemic fairness through intergroup dialogue.
“We’re not changing their homelife values, but asking students to think about what they believe, and to critically analyze using the Socratic method to figure out why we think this way and to move forward,” says Souweidane.
According to Souweidane, these experiences prepare Dearborn students for success in higher education and life in an increasingly diverse world.
“Our students have totally benefitted,” says Souweidane. “We think of isolation, and the girl with the headscarf that can’t leave her house, which is the media stereotype. But you also have the girl who is only surrounded by people like her. If you’re only associating with people from the same socioeconomic background you are missing out on the wealth life has to offer.”
What is not foreign to Dearborn Schools is recognition for academic performance. The STEM Middle School was awarded National Blue Ribbon Status in 2018, and all three Dearborn high schools, plus the Henry Ford Early College program, ranked in the top ten of either middle-to-lower-income or lower-income schools for sending the most graduates on to college.
These statistics tell only part of the story. For the past several years, the district has congratulated student after student accepted to Ivy League and other highly selective universities. “How many Title I districts can say that?” says Chami.
“We want students to achieve the highest education possible and strive for the careers they want,” says Souweidane. “Their opportunities are limitless. But if we don’t educate them on diversity, they’ll stay in their own enclave. And that’s not what Dearborn is about.”