The Calgary Board of Education is looking at adding an Arabic bilingual program to its second language offerings, if there is enough demand from parents.
The public board is asking parents to forward expressions of interest through its website or an open house to be held at Central Memorial High School on May 19 from 5: 30 to 7 p.m.
If enough parents say they'd like to enrol their children in an Arabic program, it would be offered in kindergarten and Grade 1 starting September 2012.
"This was brought to us by a group of parents who have been very dedicated to this second language and bilingual learning approach," said Cathy Faber, superintendent of learning innovation.
If brought in, the program would work like bilingual programs now in place for Spanish, Mandarin and German, with about 30 to 50 per cent of instruction in Arabic and the rest in English.
"There's a strong English requirement in order for students to be successful," said Faber.
The private Calgary Islamic School and the Almadina Language Charter School are the only institutions that offer daily Arabic instruction for children, and both have lengthy waiting lists.
"It is an excellent idea," said Moussa Ouarou, principal of the Calgary Islamic School.
"It's a step forward. There is a huge demand in learning Arabic. I think Arabic is as popular as French, maybe more."
Ouarou said there 85,000 Muslims living in Calgary, and about 35,000 speak Arabic.
There would be no requirement to speak Arabic to enrol. Ouarou said the program would likely draw a range of students, including those who speak it at home, second or third generation kids whose parents want to maintain a link to the family's cultural heritage, and non-Arabic speakers.
The program would contain a strong cultural component, as well.
Nagah Hage, chairman of the Muslim Council of Calgary, said he would expect big demand for the program.
"It would draw students from all quadrants of the city," said Hage. "There's a lot of demand for this."
In Edmonton, two elementary schools and one junior high offer Arabic bilingual programs in the public system.
Jamal El-Rafih, principal of the Almadina school, has visited the Edmonton programs and said they are very popular.
Almadina is primarily focused on English as a second language, but offers French and Arabic options.
El-Rafih said research shows that ESL students tend to have an easier time learning English when they are also receiving instruction in their first language.
"When I first came to Canada, way back in 1976, they used to tell us don't speak your first language, speak English all the time," said El-Rafih. "Now research is showing we should encourage both languages because the child starts translating and the brain is capable of handling two languages, easily."