Ten-year-old Caleb Townsend is well beyond learning his alphabet, but on Wednesday he and other students at San Jose Elementary School were learning the alphabet all over again - this time in Arabic.
Caleb and 39 other students in San Jose's third, fourth and fifth grades are part of Duval County Public Schools' new Arabic language program. The students spend about 30 minutes, four days a week learning the basics of Arabic, spoken in countries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia and the language of the Qur'an.
Caleb said the class is fun.
"It gives me a chance to learn a new culture," he said, "and I get to talk a different language."
The program adds to a strong international culture at San Jose, where the student body represents 35 countries and 35 languages. It is taught by Essam Elia, a native of Egypt who is in his ninth year teaching English language learners at San Jose.
Elia said he has wanted to create an Arabic class for several years and got his chance this year when the district decided to push the initiative forward.
"I hope by the end of this year, they'll learn more about the Middle East [and] the culture," Elia said.
Joanne Davis, supervisor of World Languages for Duval schools, said she recognizes some people may have a negative reaction to young people learning Arabic - although the district has received no complaints - but views the program as an opportunity and way to combat cultural ignorance.
"Unfortunately, it's a lack of knowledge that really causes so many issues and concerns that we have," Davis said, "so Essam will include cultural components as well."
Arabic is considered one of the tougher languages to master, so being introduced to it at a young age is beneficial, Elia said.
Before beginning an exercise on Wednesday, he asked the class if they were ready to begin.
"N' am!" the students yelled, the Arabic word for yes.
Of Elia's 40 students, seven have Arabic backgrounds, like 9-year-old Abigail Farah.
"It comes very naturally to me because my grandmother was actually born in Palestine, present-day Israel," Abigail said.
But she still enjoys the class.
"I just like saying all the fun words," Abigail said, "because when you write it's like pictures not letters."
Program will expand
Elia's classroom is filled with colorful posters displaying the Arabic words for insects, marine animals, family members and occupations.
The 14 fourth-graders sang a song to learn the Arabic consonants. Each held a piece of paper with the Arabic letters written on them with English letters to help them remember the sounds.
The class also practices common exchanges like shoeqrun laaka (thank you) and marhaba (welcome).
The addition of Arabic is part of the district's plan to expand world language options for students that also includes French, Spanish, German, Latin, Chinese, Portuguese, Italian and Turkish.
Arabic is an ideal choice because of the global need for Arabic speakers and employment opportunities, Davis said.
The district plans to expand the program to Southside and duPont middle schools next year and then to Englewood and Wolfson high schools. Teachers haven't been selected for the additional classes, but the district has candidates in mind.
Caleb can already see the benefit of learning Arabic.
"You might work at a job and there might be a person who doesn't speak your language," he said, "and it might help that you know a different language."
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