More than 420 million people in the world speak Arabic. Come next year, Missoula County Public Schools will start adding to the total.
A joint and somewhat frenzied effort last spring by teams from MCPS and the University of Montana has secured a grant of $763,000 from the U.S. Department of Education to introduce Arabic language and culture classes to Big Sky, Hellgate and Sentinel High School students.
"This is an opportunity to expose our students to a different culture, a different language and one of the most important languages in the world today," Superintendent Alex Apostle said Tuesday.
Program development will begin during the current school year, including the training by UM staff of high school language teachers. Several of those teachers participated on the joint grant-writing team with UM.
The first Arabic classes will launch in the fall of 2010, and at the end of the course of study MCPS students will be eligible to enroll in advanced-level Arabic classes at UM. At some point during the course of the five-year grant, the Missoula district's three middle schools will begin Arabic instruction as well.
It's one of the largest, if not the largest, federal grant to come down the pike for the school district.
"My eyes got as big as 50-cent pieces when I saw it was over $700,000," Apostle said. "We're very lucky, very privileged to be in this position."
Applications were approved for fewer than 30 school districts nationwide from an applicant pool of well over 100, said Mehrdad Kia, associate provost for international programs at the University of Montana. The grant comes from the Department of Education's Foreign Language Assistance Program, or FLAP.
"It is very elite and exclusive company," said Kia, "It puts our Missoula public schools on the national radar, in terms of recognition but also in terms of strategic vision. It shows they are moving in new directions and making international languages and issues a major priority."
Kia said especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks there has been an emphasis on introducing "critical languages" in U.S. schools, "so we have a literate and educated population, which can serve the national interest of the United States at the various levels."
For the past two summers, UM has offered intensive Arabic language training programs for Montana middle school and high school students, and the response has been enormous. The university also added a Central and Southwest Asia program.
"We realized that there is a demand for this," Kia said. "We thought instead of just waiting we'd better get our act together and put a team together and go for the money that's available and bring it to Missoula."
The idea is not to exclude European language instruction but to supplement those classes.
"Clearly, languages such as Arabic and Chinese are really gaining momentum in terms of interest with the students, and also a lot of parents want their children to have access to non-European languages," Kia said. "And Arabic and Chinese come out on top in terms of non-European languages in demand."
Some Missoula schools already offer Mandarin Chinese, and Apostle hailed the addition of Arabic studies as another triumph in recent MCPS efforts to work with the local university.
"We've probably got about eight or nine projects going with the University of Montana, which according to the people I've talked to is something different," said Apostle, who assumed the superintendent's role in July 2008.
Apostle and Kia lauded the teams that worked on the grant. For MCPS it was assistant superintendent Gail Becker; Becky Sorenson, curriculum and Title I coordinator; Debbie Lowe and Michael Malouf of Hellgate, Libby Oliver of Sentinel, Lisa Moser of Big Sky, and Heidi Gross of Washington Middle School. The university was represented by professors Khaled Huthaily and Samir Bitar, as well as the international program's director of grant writing, Otto Koester.
"Actually, I think the part that amazes us first and foremost is this was our first try," Kia said. "A lot of other public schools had to try two or three times even to get it. I know for a fact some of our folks went through sleepless nights to get this proposal done."
"Give all the credit to the professors and the teachers who worked on this thing," agreed Apostle. "They had something like a two-week deadline in late spring, and you know how hectic it is with graduation and finals and everything else. They stepped up to the plate and did great work, obviously."