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Arabic community group rallies for access to serve SFUSD students

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Supporters of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center on Tuesday spoke at a San Francisco school board meeting and urged the board to approve a contract with the group for language and cultural programs. (Laura Waxmann/S.F. Examiner.

Dozens of students and their supporters urged the San Francisco school board on Tuesday to renew a contract with a community group that they said provides crucial services to Arabic students.

A contract that for some nine years enabled the Arab Resource and Organizing Center to run culture and language-specific programming for Arabic students at San Francisco middle and high schools is scheduled to come before the Board of Education on May 22.

The contract has not been renewed since 2015 while it is “under review” by the district.

According to the group’s director, Lara Kiswani, the delay stems from “Islamophobic and racist attacks” against AROC over the last three years by “outside interest groups pressuring the board and convincing them not to allow a community-based organization to work with our own community in San Francisco public schools.”

She was backed by more than 40 students and community supporters who spoke at Tuesday’s board meeting on the importance of the organization’s services, which include immigration and language access services.

Some 625 students across the San Francisco Unified School District identify as Arabic or Middle Eastern, according to Gentle Blythe, a spokesperson for the school district.

“They teach us about our history,” said 14-year-old Balboa High School student Rana Salem, about AROC. “[The organization] can provide a safe space for our students who don’t really have that and we can learn things that we never learn in the schools.”

In an email to the San Francisco Examiner, Blythe acknowledged that AROC “provides important services to SFUSD students, including support for Arab families new to the US and social-emotional support for students in affinity groups.”

She said that when AROC’s previous memorandum of understanding expired, the SFUSD was working on updating its non-discrimination policy and has “since required all agencies with MOUs to review and agree to the updated non-discrimination policy.” She added that AROC has since agreed to the district’s updated policy and “our guidelines pertaining to non-engagement of political activities.”

By Kiswani’s account, problems arose for the organization following the passage of a 2015 resolution at the school board to create an Arabic and Vietnamese language curriculum for K-12 beginning in the 2017-18 school year, which AROC helped champion.

Despite unanimous approval by the education commissioners, the resolution faced pushback by local Jewish community leaders who claimed that AROC was “anti-Israel” and “anti-Zionist” and urged the board to rescind the resolution, to no avail.

In a June 17, 2015, letter to school district leaders, members of the Jewish Community Relations Council said they were “deeply troubled” the resolution named AROC as a key resource in developing the new curriculum, citing language used by the organization to allegedly “push a radical anti-Israel and anti-Zionist agenda in San Francisco.”

Kiswani said the organization has always been clear about its politics.

“We are a social justice organization and we are against all forms of discrimination and racism including Zionism. We are also critical of the Trump administration,” she said.

School board President Hydra Mendoza McDonnell said AROC was “not singled out.”

“We just wanted to be very clear that the politics piece or anything that is related to political activities [is] not welcome to our schools and they needed to really hear that,” she said.

Mendoza McDonell said that AROC is no longer tasked with helping the district develop its Arabic language curriculum.

Still, the organization has helped implement a first Arabic language class at Mission High School this school year, according to the school’s principal, Eric Guthertz.

“AROC has been instrumental in helping us think this through and in supporting our students,” said Guthertz.

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