SCHENECTADY -- Citing increasing demand for Arabic speakers in the work force, Schenectady city schools say they will be among the first public schools in the Capital Region to teach children as young as 11 the main language of the Middle East.
Arabic will be offered to sixth-graders this fall at the King Magnet and Paige Elementary schools, and to seventh-graders at Central Park Middle School. District officials hope to expand offering the language to its other schools, including Schenectady High School, in the next few years.
Teaching Arabic in public schools in this region appears rare. Barbara Bradley, spokeswoman for the New York State School Boards Association, didn't know of many such programs statewide. Colleges, including Union College and the University at Albany, just started offering Arabic classes a couple of years ago.
But Ron Hamelin, Schenectady city schools' coordinator of world languages and English as a second language services, said that nationwide the Middle Eastern language is one of the fastest-growing new languages taught in public schools.
"We wanted to move toward a more international world language program. (Arabic) would really round that out," Hamelin said.
The Arabic program comes a year after the school district began a 10-week Mandarin Chinese class at Howe International Magnet and Mont Pleasant Middle schools. Chinese classes expanded this past fall to include three other elementary schools. More than 100 city students are learning Chinese.
Matthew Weinheimer, interim assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said Arabic also fits in with the district's population of Afghan, Iranian and Pakistani students. The district didn't immediately know Wednesday what percentage of students of Middle Eastern descent attend city schools.
Learning a language with characters not used in English is difficult. Spanish and French are considered a level one difficulty, whereas Arabic and Chinese are level four, Hamelin said.
Hamelin said the U.S. government has determined that Arabic is one of the most important languages to learn to obtain employment in the Department of Defense, CIA and FBI. He also said Arabic's departure from English-related languages provides students with a more expanded world vocabulary that can be applied to other languages such as Farsi, spoken in Iran and Afghanistan.
"Just as with a Chinese person learning how to speak English, an American student learning Arabic script opens them up to more languages," Hamelin said.
School officials said they have one teacher candidate to instruct all of the fall classes, but haven't officially made a hire yet.