Memphis' Whitehaven High School has become the first in Tennessee to offer Arabic language instruction.
The school is offering Arabic 1 this year. Next year it will add Arabic 2, while nearby Whitehaven Elementary and Havenview Middle will begin offering 30 minutes of daily Arabic instruction to every student.
"The opportunity in Arabic is earning potential," Principal Vincent Hunter told The Commercial Appeal. "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."
The language classes are thanks to a $1.3 million federal grant that will help Memphis City Schools offer instruction in four languages considered critical to global commerce: Mandarin, Russian, Japanese and Arabic. Each language will be taught in a different area of the city.
Arabic 1 could have started at any of the city high schools, but Whitehaven got it because of Mary Antone. Born and raised in Egypt, Antone is a native Arabic speaker who had been teaching French at the school.
Almost 98 percent of students at Whitehaven are African-American, but Antone said many in her class have links with the Arab-speaking world.
Some have parents in Iraq. Some want to live and work in the Arab world. Some have Muslim parents and want to be able read the Quran in Arabic.
Apart from teaching the language, Antone also sees it as her job to demystify Arab culture, she said.
"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?'"