When Cole Bloomer met with representatives of the Virginia Military Institute about his college application, he spoke to them in Arabic.
"I think it helped a lot," said Bloomer, of Buena Vista Township, a senior at St. Augustine Preparatory School who will attend VMI in the fall. He plans to major in international studies with a minor in Arabic and hopes to become an officer in the Marine Corps.
The Prep is one of just a handful of schools in the state known to offer Arabic. In spite of increased interest, educators and world language advocates said restricted state and local funding and a shortage of certified teachers have kept New Jersey public schools from offering additional languages that are becoming more important globally.
Christopher Gwin, president of Foreign Language Educators of New Jersey, said the state mandate that all children begin learning a world language in elementary school was gutted during the recession and subsequent budget cuts, with elementary and middle schools replacing world language teachers with video or software programs the classroom teacher can use.
New Jersey public high school students are required to take at least one year of a world language as a state graduation requirement, though some high schools require two and at least two is typically recommend for college applicants.
Spanish remains by far the most popular language, and some area high schools also still offer Latin, French, German and Italian. Vineland offers Russian, and a few high schools, including Ocean City, also offer sign language.
A 2013 informal survey by the New Jersey School Boards Association found that 92 percent of responding districts offer Spanish at the high school level followed by French at 75 percent. Between 23 percent and 32 percent of high schools offered German, Italian, Latin or Chinese. Sign language is offered at 5 percent, and 16 percent offer "other" languages, including Arabic, Japanese and Korean.
Asked what language they would add, slightly more than half said Chinese, about 14 percent said Arabic and 5 percent said Russian. Funding was typically cited as the reason they could not expand.
Gwin said districts also still struggle to find certified teachers.
Data provided by the state Department of Education show the number of teachers who received certifications in world languages has fluctuated over the past five years from more than 1,170 in 2009-10 to about 840 in 2013-14. Last year, 525 of the 840 teachers were certified in Spanish, followed by 109 in French and 92 in Chinese. Just 66 new teachers were certified in Italian, 26 in Latin and 23 in German. Just a handful over the past five years were certified in languages such as Arabic.
The Atlantic Huaxia Chinese School offers a public Mandarin Chinese language and culture class from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays at the Atlantic Christian School in Egg Harbor Township. It currently has about 60 students, Principal Peter Liu said. He said school officials would like to get Chinese added to local high school curricula but have come up against tight budgets.
"Once they get to high school, students get busy with other things and stop coming here," he said. Some will take a Chinese language test and earn a certificate they can submit to colleges. Most, but not all, of the students are of Chinese descent, and all are welcomed, Liu said.
Gwin said embassies and cultural groups have offered assistance in developing programs in less common languages, but if the funding is not sustained, the programs die out. The Qatar Foundation supports Arabic programs in a few major metropolitan areas such as New York City and Chicago.
Gwin said Woodbury and Paterson also offer Arabic, but the state has not done a survey since 2005, so it's hard to track what languages schools are offering.
"The program in Woodbury survives based on the strength of the teacher and the support of the community," Gwin said.
This is the fourth year Modern Standard Arabic has been offered at The Prep, which will graduate its first Arabic speakers in June. It started small, with just one class, but now 107 students are studying the language: two classes each of freshmen and sophomores, one of juniors and one of seniors.
"It was a risk that first year because no one knew if it would work," said teacher Adam Shepherd, of Blackwood.
The Rev. Donald F. Reilly, president of St. Augustine, said the school added the language to address the global reality of the world today. The Prep also offers Spanish and Latin.
"Our goal here is to have our students be change agents," he said. "We don't want them to just get a job, but to effect change in the world. Part of that is understanding others, both their language and their culture."
Shepherd said he began studying Arabic in 2007 after reading an article that the government wanted more people who spoke Arabic. He took classes at the University of Pittsburgh and Villanova University in Pennsylvania, where he also taught part-time before taking the job at The Prep.
Arabic is a challenge, but one students seem to like. Shepherd said it has attracted students who like learning something entirely different from English or just never took to Spanish..
"It's almost like a code to them," he said of the Arabic alphabet with its 28 letters, each of which can be written in four different ways depending on their location in the word, a bit like upper and lower case in English, only with more variations. There are also 14 diacritical marks that indicate pronunciation and can change the meaning of a word.
Arabic I students spend the first five months just learning the alphabet, and were nearing the end last week. But the pronunciations and alphabet can still trip up the seniors, and Shepherd corrected one who called him a woman, and another who mixed up the words "said" and "eat."
Shepherd said having Arabic on their transcripts has helped students get into preferred colleges, and some plan to continue the language there.
"Colleges have a pile of applications from students with Spanish," Shepherd said. "They don't get too many with Arabic."