February 20, 2011

H-E-B school district to offer Arabic language classes

The district already offers Chinese and Hindi, among other languages, as part of its efforts to prepare students for a global work force.

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As part of its efforts to prepare students for a global work force, the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district will offer Arabic language classes next fall.

Arabic will initially be taught at Central Junior High School in Euless and eventually at L.D. Bell and Trinity high schools. The district already offers Chinese and Hindi, among other languages.

"This will help bridge gaps in our communication with Arabic-speaking countries," said Bhavani Parpia, coordinator for H-E-B's International Business Initiative. "And our students will be better prepared to succeed in the global economy."

Arabic instruction came under scrutiny recently when the Mansfield school district backed off plans to implement an Arabic studies program after nearly 200 people, many of whom were in opposition, attended an informational meeting for parents.

Some argued they wanted more say in the curriculum, and others said they did not think so much time should be spent on one culture.

Mansfield officials now say they will use the rest of this school year to plan the program before offering Arabic as a foreign language elective at Howard Middle School in 2011-12.

H-E-B school officials said they do not foresee any protests from parents.

"Our program is entirely elective and an opportunity for students whose parents think learning Arabic would be advantageous," Superintendent Gene Buinger said. "We offer languages that will give our students the ability to acquire an edge in the global marketplace."

Arabic instruction at elementary and secondary schools is on the rise, albeit slowly, according to a 2008 survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics.

The survey, which questioned about 5,000 school districts nationwide about foreign language instruction, found 1 percent of elementary schools offered Arabic, up from 0.1 percent in 1997. At the secondary level, 0.6 percent offered Arabic, up from zero in 1997.

In Texas, about 400 students, fewer than one-half percent of the state's 4.8 million students, were enrolled last year in Arabic classes, according to the Texas Education Agency.

"We have a great national need in this country for more Arabic speakers, and that need is not going away," said Kristen Brustad, chairwoman of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Public schools have added Arabic classes gradually over the past decade, Brustad said, and that trend shows no sign of slowing.

Brustad said she would like to see Arabic become a mainstream language taught alongside the traditional Spanish, French and German.

In H-E-B, one to two sections of Arabic will initially be offered to seventh-graders, depending on student interest.

Learning additional languages will be crucial to this country's success, Parpia said.

"Our children are our future," she said. "I tell students to learn a second language -- Arabic or any other language."

Sarah Bahari, 817-390-7056

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