As school buses roll back to their stops Monday morning, consider the challenge of educators in the global economy.
On Friday, Mary Antone -- an Egyptian-born and -raised language teacher at Whitehaven High -- draped and pinned the gentle folds of a traditional garment called a galabeya on the classroom bulletin board and tacked up hand-lettered signs in Arabic script.
Besides being the first teacher in the state to teach high school Arabic -- starting Monday -- her job is to demystify a culture most Americans know only from the news.
"When I tell people I grew up in Egypt, they want to know if I lived in a pyramid. 'Did you ride to school on a camel; did you have electricity?' " she says, smiling at the learning curve her students face.
With a $1.3 million federal grant, Memphis City Schools is rolling out four languages considered critical to global commerce, building each one -- elementary through high school -- in a pocket of the city.
Mandarin is coming, Russian is expanding to Peabody Elementary this year, and Japanese is new at Richland Elementary.
Eighteen students were enrolled in Arabic 1 as of Friday, including Quinterion Mitchell, 16, who has completed the two years of foreign language the state requires for graduation. He's taking Arabic "because you never know when you'll need to be a translator," he says, only half joking.
At Whitehaven, where the senior class earned $15.7 million in scholarships this year, up $5 million from 2008, word's out that grades mean money, says principal Vincent Hunter, the former Whitehaven football star who runs the school.
"The opportunity in Arabic is earning potential," Hunter said. "That's the name of the game. When you get up to the starting line now, you're not just competing with children from across Memphis. You're up against students from Indonesia, China, India, Asia."
Next year, Whitehaven High -- where 98 percent of the student body is African-American and where almost no one lives next door to an Arabic speaker -- will offer Arabic 2; nearby Whitehaven Elementary and Havenview Middle will join with 30 minutes of daily Arabic instruction for every student.
"This is a huge, huge opportunity for these kids to stand out," said Alyssia Villarreal, City Schools world language coordinator. "Everyone can speak Spanish, but not everyone knows Arabic. Really acquiring some proficiency in it can help you stand out in the college admissions process."
Some enrolled because their parents are Muslim and they want to read the Quran, said Antone, who until now has taught French at Whitehaven.
"Some want to live and work in the Arab world; some have parents in Iraq."
The point, she says, is that Whitehaven, like every other corner of the globe, is intimately linked with Arab-speaking people.
Arabic 1 could have started at any of the city high schools, but Whitehaven got it because Antone, a native speaker, is there.
"We felt real confident about building a program around her," Villarreal said. "She's young, bright and hardworking, ready to jump on board to do whatever she needs to do to build the curriculum.
"We can give her the tools, but she's the only one who knows Arabic."
When the $27,000 language lab is completed in her classroom this fall, noise-canceling headsets will drop from the ceiling, each controlled by the command center linked to Antone's laptop.
"Kids won't have to get up and walk around the room to talk to new partners," Villarreal said. "Ms. Antone will be able to create small groups, or the whole group can listen to her through their headsets,"
"When you click a button, the headsets will go back up, so other classes can use the room."
-- Jane Roberts: 529-2512