Beginning next fall, students in the Summit High School feeder system will have the opportunity to learn to speak Arabic, thanks to a five-year, $1.3 million grant from the Education Department.
Only about 400 students in the state are enrolled in Arabic-language programs, according to the Texas Education Agency.
The language course will be offered as part of a comprehensive elementary and secondary Arabic studies program that also includes social-studies lessons. Mansfield school district officials said the new program will give students a competitive edge in the workplace.
"There are a number of opportunities for Arabic-speaking graduates," said Lamar Goree, assistant superintendent for student support and services in the Mansfield school district. "The federal government is putting a lot of time and attention into Arabic studies."
According to the Labor Department, employment of interpreters and translators is projected to increase 22 percent through 2018, with Arabic among the languages in "strong demand."
Goree said the district intends to build a partnership with the University of Texas' Arabic Flagship Program, which gives high-performing students the opportunity to become proficient in Arabic while pursuing an undergraduate degree of choice.
A recent Los Angeles Times article reported that U.S. college enrollment in Arabic-language courses soared by 46 percent from 2006 to 2009.
"We want to prepare kids to be successful in [Arabic] programs in college," Goree said.
The Mansfield district also offers Spanish, French, German, Latin, Chinese and American Sign Language courses.
The district intends to start implementing some of the program's social-studies curriculum at Cross Timbers Intermediate by February.
By the next year, the program will expand to include language classes at T.A. Howard Middle and Summit High schools and social-studies programs at Kenneth Davis Elementary School.
"We'll embed the Arabic curriculum into our [existing] social-studies curriculum," Goree said.
"Say you're studying a particular topic -- you will compare and contrast as to how this is done in an Arabic-speaking culture."
The decision to focus on the Summit feeder schools was based on a recommendation from the UT program's administrators.
"We had conversations about characteristics of successful programs," Goree said. This feeder system "is the area of the district where we have the most Arabic speakers."
Goree said response to the district's announcement has been generally positive.
"We've only had one parent express concern," he said.
"We addressed it by explaining that we aren't in the business of teaching religion. We're not teaching Islam. Our goal is simply to teach the Arabic language and increase awareness of the Arabic culture. We are preparing students to compete in a global society."
Mansfield district parent Michele Cozart, who is an educator in another district, said that while she endorses foreign-language studies, she views Arabic as more of a niche language.
"I'm glad the program is being funded by grant money," she said. "I wouldn't want district funds to go toward a program that only a small amount of students will be interested in."