Dearborn Public Schools is trying to expand the number of elementary students learning a different language.
Becker, Henry Ford, McDonald, and River Oaks elementary schools have all started offering Arabic, said Jill Chochol, assistant superintendent for elementary education.
Miller and William Ford elementaries have offered Arabic for a few years, which has led to Arabic classes at Woodworth Middle School, she said.
New this year will be an after-school Chinese program at Oakman, Whitmore-Bolles and Snow elementary schools. The Web-based program will be offered twice a week for 40 minutes. Each session will last six to eight weeks, she said.
Dearborn had hoped to include Chinese as a regular enrichment class this year, but was not able to hire a qualified teacher because such programs have become so popular.
Chochol explained to the school board the new programs are being offered in what the U.S. Department of Education considers "world languages," including Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, and Urdu. That is different than the traditional "foreign language" many adults took including Spanish, French and German.
Federal grants are available to help start world language programs, said Superintendent Brian Whiston.
"We feel this will give our kids an advantage," Chochol said of starting languages younger. Younger children's brains are wired to pick up language.
"It's a lot harder if you totally wait until high school," she said.
Parents can opt to pull their kids out of Arabic classes during school, but very few do so, she said.
Trustee Mary Petlichkoff said, "If we really value it, we should make sure they are not opting out." Board members had received an email from a concerned parent who was frustrated with the emersion method of teaching Arabic.
Chochol said the district had mostly received a very positive response to offering languages.
Petlichkoff also asked whether the elementary programs would then be extended into middle and high school. Students who stop their studies could lose the language, she said.
She also asked if the teachers were certified as foreign language teachers.
Chochol said the Arabic teachers are certified to teach elementary students, as required by the state, and do professional development with other foreign language teachers in the district.
Whiston said administrators know the programs need to be extended to K-12.
Trustee Aimee Blackburn said she works for a global organization and can hear other languages being spoken at work every day.
"I think it¹s really important that our children are exposed to different languages," she said.
Dearborn would eventually like to offer foreign languages at all the elementary schools. That might mean dropping a different enrichment class at that building, and gym, music and art have their own value, Chochol said.
Otherwise the district would need to add more staff.
"Then it will get down to can we afford it?" she said.