Niles Township High School District 219 is on the verge of becoming the first public high school system in the US to offer Assyrian as a world language.
By Joe Snell | September 2022
In a major decision over seven years in the making, a committee tasked with reviewing and implementing curriculum changes to a Chicago-area public school district voted this month to recommend an Assyrian language and culture course.
The course, which would mark the first accredited Assyrian language program in the country offered at a public high school, now moves to the district’s Board of Education to hear on October 11 and a vote in November. If approved by the Board, it will become an official course offered in the district’s public high schools. Students could then register for the course beginning January 2023.
“This is a course that is not only something our district will offer, but it’s something that is possible for any school in the state,” said Caroline Benjamin, a school administrator in Chicago’s District 219. “This truly becomes a blueprint for other districts.”
Niles Township High Schools, or District 219, includes Niles North and Niles West. Total enrollment at both high schools is over 4,700 students and composed of about 30% Assyrians, according to estimates by D219 Suraye, an Assyrian parent group in the district.
Any changes to the district’s course offerings must first receive approval from the Curriculum Standards for School Improvement (CSSI) Committee. The process to receive approval from the body can take years and many meetings.
In the case of the Assyrian languages curriculum, work began in 2015. The idea was born out of a D219 Suraye parent meeting, co-sponsored at the time by Benjamin. The group was advised by school officials to begin the process by conducting a survey of interest of over 1,000 8-10th grade students.
Despite reported interest, progress on implementing the program together was slow as regular turnover in school administration meant Assyrians frequently started near the beginning to win over new educators. And some school officials were concerned that the course would take students away from other language programs, an educator told the Journal.
A trial of the course was offered in 2017 as a summer elective. Ten students enrolled in the class taught by an Assyrian staff member. The summer option continued for three consecutive years and became a virtual option in 2020 following the spread of COVID.
But parents wanted more. The course needed to be held during the school year, one parent said, and it had to be offered full-time in the fall and spring.
So advocacy continued. Benjamin recalls going back to the school’s administration saying summer elective courses weren’t enough. This time, however, things were different. The course had reportedly grown momentum with the addition of Ramina Samuel, a school counselor at Niles North and current co-sponsor of the Suraye parent group.
“Ramina came in and started asking the right questions and started pushing in a way that took people out of their comfort zone,” Benjamin said. “They started realizing, ‘These people aren’t going away, these people aren’t going to stop.’”
A full-time curriculum was presented to CSSI in the fall of 2021. The committee responded favorably, according to notes obtained from the discussion, but admitted their hands were tied — as long as the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) didn’t recognize Assyrian as a world language in their annual school catalog, an accredited course at a public high school couldn’t be offered.
“That was not something at that time that seemed possible,” Benjamin said. “We didn’t have the team that we do have now advocating at that level.”
Assyrian activists and political leaders mobilized. Village of Lincolnwood Trustee Atour Sargon and Assyrian Policy Institute (API) Director Reine Hanna pressed state representatives to nudge the Assyrian curriculum onto ISBE’s radar.
“The significant progress made in recent weeks is the result of many years of advocacy and persistence by advocates and community members,” Sargon wrote to the Journal. “Had the community not pushed for it in the face of immense obstacles, we simply wouldn’t have reached this stage in the process.”
With the support of State Rep. Jen Gong-Gershowitz, who co-chairs the newly established Illinois Assyrian Caucus, a December 2021 meeting was arranged with ISBE.
The state board approved thirteen Assyrian courses, which have since been added to the Illinois State Course Catalog that is slated for release this fall.
Despite state approval, the course still needed a CSSI recommendation to be included in the district’s class offerings. A second committee meeting was set for March.
In the weeks leading up to the presentation, the Suraye parent group worked with community activists to drum up support among school officials. During a February meeting with the district’s Board of Education, Assyrians presented over 800 letters of support from community members.
During the second CSSI meeting, Assyrians presented updates on the ISBE approval along with the letters of support. CSSI had no more questions about the curriculum, according to meeting minutes, but as changes to the district’s course catalog only gets approved once a year in September, the proposal would again have to be put on hold.
As the proposal sat in summer limbo, World language teacher Thomas Neal, together with Samuel and math teacher William Sargool, worked in detail on what the curriculum could look like. The group also worked closely with Assyrian schools in Australia that had already developed a K-12 program and launched a text book series to teach the language.
After six months, Assyrian parents and educators presented for a third time to CSSI on Sept. 13, but with another hurdle to overcome: the committee had many new faces and nearly tripled in size. Renewed questions were asked, including if this course would lead to an enrollment drop in other world languages. Following the meeting, and despite pushback from some CSSI members that was challenged by Charlene Abraham, a new Assyrian member of the committee, the curriculum was finally recommended to be presented to the Board of Education for approval as a two-year language option that would fulfill the student’s world language requirement.
The requirements for the appointed teacher of the curriculum are still in discussion. At the state level, the teacher would need a PEL (Professional Education License). Further requirements including endorsements and additional teaching courses will have to be decided by the district.
And as parents and educators wait for the Board of Education’s final vote next month, work is already underway to take this curriculum to the national level.
One thing is certain: District 219 is poised to become the first public high school district in the US to offer Assyrian as a world language.
“This didn’t start connecting until the right people were hired in the right positions,” Benjamin said. “That’s why bringing people into spaces like schools where they reflect the community truly matters. It couldn’t happen with just one person advocating.”
An earlier version of this article cited eight Assyrian courses approved by the Illinois State Board. That number was since found to be thirteen.
An earlier version also cited the district’s Board of Education voting on the curriculum Oct. 11, but the vote is in November, the board will be hearing about the curriculum in October.