Umama Khenissi was born in the north African country of Tunisia, where at the school her cousins attend, foreign language is not a high school elective but an elementary school requirement.
The school teaches Arabic and French in elementary school, and students must know four languages to graduate from high school, she said.
So when Khenissi heard Columbia's middle school principals were eliminating a program that offered a five- or six-week sampling of several foreign languages to sixth-graders, she was perplexed.
"I feel like we should start it younger" than sixth grade, said Khenissi, 20, a Rock Bridge High School graduate who moved here with her family when she was 2.
She was one of five residents and about a dozen Columbia foreign-language teachers who went to the Board of Education's student performance committee meeting Tuesday, asking the committee not to let the foreign-language experience program known as FLEX be removed in the fall as planned.
They said the program might not be in-depth, but it gives students an introduction to languages to study later and exposes them to various cultures.
"This is the only opportunity that all sixth-graders have to be exposed to foreign languages," said Karina Galve-Peritore, who teaches FLEX at Lange Middle School. The district's three middle schools all offer FLEX.
At Lange and Gentry, sixth-graders study the following areas for 90 minutes a day, rotating every six weeks: FLEX, family and consumer sciences, industrial technology, computers, art and vocal music. At Smithton, they study those subjects plus drama and rotate every five weeks.
With FLEX, teachers introduce Spanish, French, Latin, German and Japanese, Galve-Peritore said.
The middle school principals have decided to place health in the subject rotation in place of FLEX. The health curriculum committee recommended that health receive its own time slot instead of being part of the science curriculum, said Sally Beth Lyon, the district's chief academic officer.
None of the schools' principals responded to Tribune messages seeking comment.
Lyon said the schools plan to emphasize some of the cultural aspects of foreign-language teaching in the social studies curriculum.
At Tuesday's meeting, Wendul Hagler said he has spent about 25 years in the military and traveled to about 25 countries. He argued that foreign-language education is more than learning languages.
"We really would do well as a nation to understand other cultures," said Hagler, who serves as joint chief of staff for the Missouri National Guard but emphasized that he was speaking for himself, not for the military.
Galve-Peritore said students tell her they hadn't planned on taking a foreign language course until they experienced the FLEX program.
Khenissi now attends Moberly Area Community College and speaks Arabic, French, English and some Spanish. "I'm so thankful for that," she said.