Some Baltimore educators and school leaders say Arabic-speaking families — and their children — are flocking to city schools. But not all schools have the resources to help those students succeed.

Mary Ancinec is the principal of John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School, where 73% of students qualify for English for Speakers of Other Languages services. She calls it “a school of many nations.”

“We’ve always historically had a larger English learning population, and we have worked really hard to kind of cater to and build a lot of wraparound services,” Ancinec said.

Ancinec has been working in Baltimore City schools since 1999.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Throughout the years that I’ve been in Baltimore City schools, I’ve seen a really drastic kind of increase in different language groups — and Arabic-speaking students are one of them,” she said. “Each year we get a few more Arabic-speaking students.”

That’s why Ancinec hired a second Arabic-speaking professional this year — to meet the rising needs of a growing student group.

“It’s definitely a response to the need for kids to see themselves in our staff, and the need for us all to really be reflective of the communities that we serve, and the need for us to be able to communicate with our parents effectively,” she said.

Ancinec said there are 20 ESOL teachers in total at John Ruhrah, which she expects is higher than most schools in the district. Having two Arabic-speaking professionals is especially rare.

“Trying to find people with a capacity in a second language like Arabic is a lot harder than, let’s say, Spanish,” Ancinec said. “It’s hard to find biliterate and bilingual folk in general. But when you start to look at a smaller population, it gets very difficult.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In Maryland, the number of English-learning students has continued to increase over a 10-year period — with over 100,000 students in 2023. Over three-quarters of those students speak Spanish as their primary language.

But the number of Arabic-speaking families has been rising in the U.S., and so has the number of Arabic-speaking students.

“We are a refugee resettlement city,” Ancinec said. “So we do get refugees that come and are placed here through the State Department and different organizations. And that has a way of getting a foothold or building a cultural community within a city.”

Maria Reamore, director of multilingual services for Baltimore City schools, said in an email that the district doesn’t track the language that their ESOL teachers speak — because they’re not actually required to be fluent in a language other than English.

“We monitor enrollment at all schools,” she said. “There is not a certain percentage but we do begin watching schools closely if we see 2-3 students and try to provide teacher support when it gets to about 5.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The district also doesn’t track the home language of students districtwide, Reamore said. Each students’ native language is individually logged in the Infinite Campus system.

Khawla Mahmood has been working as an Arabic-speaking paraprofessional for the city district since 2010. This is her first year working only at one school, as the point-person for John Ruhrah. She used to work with six schools a week.

“When I came here in 2008, there was no Arabic. I am the first family here with my kids. We’re surprised, we’re shocked, we’re scared,” Mahmood said. "After that the families, they keep coming, especially from Iraq from 2008 to 2013. And 2015 until now there is a lot of Arabic families from Syria and Sudan, Yemen. It’s a lot now, like we are an Arabic City.”

District struggles with staff shortages, translation apps

Even with two Arabic-speaking professionals on staff, ESOL students at John Ruhrah still fall behind state average in standardized test performances. In the 2022-23 school year, only 56% of elementary ESOL students scored “proficient” on the state exams. Just under 14% of middle school ESOL students did the same.

Most of John Ruhrah’s ESOL teachers are “infused” in classrooms with students, Ancinec said, instead of pulling children out for individualized services.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“So that way kids, they don’t have that ‘other’ feeling,” she said. “That ‘other’ feeling, to me, is really important as a principal to make sure that kids don’t feel singled out but feel part of the group.”

Mahmood and her son — the most recent Arabic-speaking hire at John Ruhrah — are the exception. They go wherever they’re needed,Mahmood said.

“I am the fly bird,” she said. “I’m flying here, everywhere, the cafeteria, the ESOL classroom, offices, everywhere.”

Hanem Metwally and Souad Moumen both have children enrolled at John Ruhrah. When asked about the resources available that help them and their students, they both had one answer: Mahmood.

“They use me as an interpreter or translator,” Mahmood said. “When they need anything, they call me to deliver the message to the teachers or the admin in a school.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

But Mahmood can’t be everywhere at once. And when she’s not around, Ancinec says staff are forced to rely on phone translation apps.

“It’s very sterile,” Ancinec said. “You need someone who can engage with you emotionally as well as linguistically. And that’s what a human being does. All these different types of tools that we have are great, but they’re very impersonal.”

Metwally and Moumen also said the translation apps and websites are often inaccurate or confusing. And that’s one of the tools that schools without Arabic-speaking staff use exclusively.

Google Translate isn’t perfect, but we use it regularly,” said one ESOL teacher at a city high school, who requested anonymity for job security. “And I think we use it quite effectively in terms of communicating with each other.”

But he said there are specific challenges with Arabic-speaking students.

“When you’re teaching Latino kids, you share a common alphabet, for example,” he said. “So when you’re teaching, you have a basis to build on, because they already have a knowledge of the alphabet.”

A different city high school social studies teacher said she started taking more professional development courses this year to better serve her Arabic-speaking and Latino students.

“I have seen the population of Arabic students greatly increase,” she said. “So I did multilingual professional development, which was abundantly helpful. Last semester, I was so clueless.”

Parents, educators call for more systemic solutions

The Baltimore Banner found that elementary schools in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties ranked on-top in the state’s ESOL proficiency scores this past year, earning scores higher than 7 out of 10. The state average was 6.6.

At one of the top contenders, Lamont Elementary School, teachers said ESOL student success is a schoolwide effort. They have five ESOL teachers — one for each grade — that pulls students out of their classroom in small groups for 30-to-45-minute intensive instruction.

The Banner interviewed Derya Kulavuz-Onal, president of Maryland TESOL, about best strategies for helping English-language learners.

She said it’s best for general education and ESOL teachers to co-teach in “sheltered model” classrooms, which are exclusive to multilingual learners.

Metwally and Moumen, the two Arabic-speaking parents at John Ruhrah Elementary, said schools also need to address more systemic issues. Transportation is a big one.

Both of their kids walk over 20 minutes to school. It’s an issue of safety, Mahmood translated for them.

“In our culture, the girls cannot walk alone in strange areas,” Mahmood said. “This is the issue they cannot fix.”

Mahmood said there are still stereotypes and discrimination towards Arabic people that deter student success, and new hires.

“Culture, it’s not easy. Some people have stereotypes about Arabic people that we are still facing — especially me,” she said. “I know the system. I know what’s going on. I know how to navigate everything. But always there is always an obstacle there.”

This story is published in partnership with as part of the Baltimore News Collaborative, a project exploring the challenges and successes experienced by young people in Baltimore. The collaborative is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. News members of the collaborative retain full editorial control.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School, and the spelling of Khawla Mahmood’s name.