HISD Considers Language Immersion Program in Arabic

UPDATE: As of 11/14/2014, HISD is officially moving forward on plans for an Arabic immersion magnet school. The Houston Chronicle has more.

HISD is well-established as a hotspot for excellent programs in world languages. A combined total of 11 languages are offered in HISD schools, starting as early as PreK in some schools. In addition to language magnets like Bellaire High and Kolter Elementary, HISD also has a number of English-Spanish dual language programs and a highly sought-after immersion program in Mandarin Chinese.

Now, the school board is considering a new magnet program that would even further improve HISD’s language offerings – an elementary school immersion program in Modern Standard Arabic. If approved, the program will open in fall 2015. The school board will vote on the prospective program and come to a final decision in their upcoming meeting on November 13.

Arabic is already offered in some HISD schools, notably Bellaire, but an Arabic immersion program would potentially allow for more advanced curricula, and it would certainly create a more optimal language-learning environment. As Arabic is one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn, and the ease of acquiring a second language has been shown to decrease with a person’s age, an immersion program at the elementary level could give its students a considerable advantage over peers who don’t start Arabic until high school or college.

If approved, HISD’s Arabic immersion program will be one of just a handful in the country. With the exception of dual language programs in Spanish, which are becoming increasingly common, language immersion programs are relatively rare in American schools. Most K-12 students nationwide have access to immersion-model language learning only through STARTALK, a selective and short summer program administered by the federal government.

District officials have stated several reasons that an Arabic immersion program is worth pursuing. Firstly, it will help to meet the needs of the student population. After English, Arabic is the second most common language spoken at home by HISD students [when all regional and national variants of Arabic are counted together as one language]. A language immersion program would help students from Arabic-speaking households retain their proficiency in Arabic as well as English, allowing them to maintain deeper ties to their culture and heritage.

Secondly, such a program would be a long-term investment for the city of Houston as it maintains its position as “one of the world’s leading energy capitals,” to quote HISD Superintendent Terry Grier. Because of the city’s importance in the oil industry and its resulting economic ties with oil-rich Arabic-speaking nations in the Middle East, proficiency in Arabic is a relevant and sought-after skill in Houston.

The potential long-term increase in Arabic-proficient Houstonians from the proposed program has been touted by district officials as a benefit to the city, but of course, it would also benefit the individual students involved. Arabic is a highly marketable skill, not only in Houston’s petroleum industry, but also for a variety of positions within the Department of State and the Department of Defense. A child who acquires and maintains proficiency in Arabic will have no shortage of career opportunities as an adult.