When Stagg High School senior Neda Safadi enrolled in Spanish class as a sophomore, she learned a striking lesson about Hispanic people.
"I thought, for some reason, that because everyone spoke the same language, the culture was the same," she said. "Each country is different."
The Bridgeview teen thinks that a similar lesson could be taught through Arabic language courses in the local schools. That's why she and her younger sister Lema Safadi, 14, have joined a local campaign to get Arabic on the course roster in Consolidated High School District 230 and Oak Lawn Community High School District 229.
The proposal to add classes in the Arabic language -- which the federal government has deemed as an academic area where growth is critical to national security and commerce -- is being mulled over by administrators in the two districts.
"Do we have a feeling one way or another? Not yet," said Brenda Reynolds, who oversees curriculum in District 230.
Surveys to gauge interest in expanding foreign language offerings already have gone out to Oak Lawn parents. District 230 plans to follow suit beginning late in the summer. If there's an adequate response in favor of adding the language, classes could be available to students in both districts by fall 2009.
But the slow pace of deciding whether the high schools will take the leap has left Mohammed Sahloul, president of the Bridgeview-based Mosque Foundation, feeling frustrated.
"They are dragging their feet unnecessarily," said Sahloul, who has pledged to secure financial support to get the new classes going since first pitching the idea about a year ago.
"We told the school districts we want this for our community and we are behind you, we will help you find the resources," he said.
Since the U.S. government has announced financial support to help Americans to become fluent in a host of languages that are deemed critical to the country's future - including Arabic, Bengali, Chinese and Russian - colleges, universities and increasingly high schools are expanding their foreign language programs.
Chicago officials announced earlier this month that they'll invest more than $1 million in developing and expanding foreign language programs, namely with Arabic and Chinese courses, throughout the city's public schools in the coming year.
"Learning Arabic provides students with a competitive edge," said Sahloul, who hopes south suburban districts will follow Chicago's lead.
French, Spanish, German and Latin are taught in districts 229 and 230. Expanding foreign language classes, as with programs in any academic department, takes time, Oak Lawn High School Principal Mike Riordan cautioned.
"First we have to determine if we have enough demand with our students and families to fill the classes," Riordan said.
Enough students would have to register to fill five classes to make the program a go, said Riordan, who estimates it would cost approximately $100,000 to get the initiative off the ground.
The price tag won't be the deciding factor in District 230, Reynolds said.
"There's going to have to be quite a lot of communication to make sure there's enough interest to sustain it," she said.
So far, 166 high schoolers (mostly from District 230 and not all Arab-American) have signed on to petitions being circulated by the Safadi sisters and other teens to show their interest in enrolling in the classes should they be offered.
In the region, where an estimated 40,000 Arab-Americans live, curiosity about the Arabic language already runs high - among teens at least - Neda Safadi said.
"People always say 'How do you say hello,' " or ask her to write their names in Arabic "because they like the font," she said.
"If they invest (in teaching) German, French and Spanish, why not do it for Arabic, too?" her 14-year-old sister said.