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 U.S. Department of Education.
Currently, there are only about 400 students in the state 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. School district officials said that the new program will give students a competitive advantage in the workplace.
"There are a number of opportunities for Arabic-speaking graduates," said Lamar Goree, assistant superintendent for student support and services. "The federal government is putting a lot of time and attention into Arabic studies."
According to the U.S. Department of Labor website, employment of interpreters and translators of foreign language is projected to increase 22 percent through 2018, with Arabic among the languages in "strong demand."
Goree said that the district intends to build a partnership with the University of Texas's 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 between 2006 and 2009.
"We want to prepare kids to be successful in (Arabic) programs in college," Goree said.
Besides the new Arabic course, the Mansfield district 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 School and Summit High School and social studies programming 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 that response to the district's announcement of the program launch 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," Goree continued. "We are preparing students to complete 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-interest 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.
"I think it's important for students to learn a foreign language," she said. "Since I took Spanish in high school, I feel like I could be dropped off in the middle of Mexico and survive.
"Every job application you fill out asks if you have a second language," she said.