Community rallies around saving Japanese, Hmong language programs

Nov. 30—EAU CLAIRE — Buzzing with energy and overflowing into the halls of the Eau Claire Area School District Administration Building, members of the community gathered before the Eau Claire School Board to make their collective voice heard Monday night.

One by one, 18 students, former students, teachers, professors, parents, concerned citizens and even an Honorary Consul of Japan spoke before the board, showing support for a common cause.

"In my final years at UW-Eau Claire I took a Hmong language course," said Ka Vue, who grew up in Eau Claire. "I took this course and paid money to learn about myself. That is not how I want anyone to have to learn about their own identity. I cannot stress enough how important this course was in cultivating the language that I had lost through the education system, which does not operate with bilingual students in mind."

Vue, program director for the Black and Brown Women Power Coalition, was the seventh person during Monday's meeting to speak against the district's recent decision to discontinue its Japanese and Hmong language courses.

A 2013 graduate of Memorial High School, Vue said she often felt she had to hide parts of her Hmong identity at school, where Hmong classes were not yet available. It wasn't until college when she finally felt at home.

"Learning Hmong, to me, is about more than just language. It is about identity. It was about bringing power back to myself and loving myself when I had hidden parts of me for so long," Vue said. "While Hmong may not be a language spoken worldwide, it has impact here in our community, in our schools, in your halls. I believe that matters. I believe it matters because it is identity-affirming to be seen as a true member of this community and be reflected in the curriculum."

Review led to cuts

The ECASD currently offers Spanish, French, German and American Sign Language in addition to Hmong and Japanese language courses.

The decision to phase out Japanese, taught by Hiroko Nagai, over the next two years and merge the Hmong language courses, taught by Jackson Yang, with a Hmong History and Cultures class in 2023 was announced to students, World Language teachers and families in mid-November.

According to a World Language Program Review released by the district in November, enrollment in World Language courses for grades 7-12 has dropped over the past decade. Staffing costs to deliver world languages in middle and high schools during the 2021-2022 school year totaled $1.7 million. That same year, 23 of the 46 courses offered at the high school level had fewer than 15 students per course.

In conducting the review, the district aimed to best identify the courses that would prepare students to use language to communicate and encourage students to engage in disciplinary content learning; investigate and interact within and across cultures; participate in diverse contexts and communities; compare languages and cultures; develop skills for local and global community engagement; and access the benefits of multilingualism for college, careers and personal enrichment.

As part of the review, the district surveyed 1,577 students, 1,697 families and 20 instructional World Language staff to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses and other demographics within the department.

Consulting firm Hanover Research partnered with the district to examine current trends in world languages in the United States with a specific focus in the Midwest.

The agency noted that, after English and Spanish, Hmong, German, Chinese, Polish, Dutch, Vietnamese, Arabic, Afro-Asiatic languages and other native languages in North America are among the most prominent languages spoken at home in the Midwest.

Hanover also found that Spanish, Chinese, French, Japanese and German are the most in-demand languages amongst U.S. employers.

"Through this process, the administrative team has recognized the difficulty in sustaining six course options at the high school level and determined ECASD can no longer provide and maintain six high quality course options for students while being fiscally responsible," the report stated, also citing low enrollment, staffing shortages and shifts in student interests.

Spreading the word

Members of the Eau Claire community aren't alone in their disapproval of the change, though.

Speaking in protest before the board on Monday was Andrew Seaborg, Honorary Consul to Japan in Madison. Through this diplomatic appointment, it is Seaborg's responsibility to represent the Japanese government and its interests in Wisconsin.

"You may not realize this," Seaborg said to the board, "but when you published your decision in Eau Claire, it rapidly flew to Chicago, to the Consulate, then to the embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Ministry of Education in Tokyo."

He noted that the district has since received multiple letters from concerned individuals, including Chicago-based Consul General Hiroshi Tajima, who stated that the Japanese government takes Japanese language education very seriously.

Seaborg also pointed out that Wisconsin is home to 80 Japanese owned-businesses, the country is a close ally of the United States, the State Department has deemed Japanese a "critical language" and it is a language that is looked upon favorably by universities.

"I'm here to encourage you to reconsider," Seaborg continued. "I'm also here to offer you the resources of the Japanese government, including salary assistance and teacher recruitment when the time might be right."

ECASD Superintendent Michael Johnson said Seaborg's proposal is something the district "would certainly consider."

"These are generous offers, and we also heard from individuals from the university, as well as the community at large to assist us," Johnson said. "As we have often experienced in the ECASD, Eau Claire has demonstrated tremendous generosity to its public schools."

Fighting to be heard

Reiko Shinno, a professor of Asian and World History at UW-Eau Claire, told the board the district's review failed to consider racial proportionality within the World Language classes. Hmong and Japanese courses tend to attract more students of color, she said.

"Those are the students who see those language classes as their home in their high school," Shinno said.

She added that she would be willing to help the district with staff recruitment, should the need arise.

Jodi Thesing-Ritter, UW-Eau Claire's Center for EDI Training, Development and Education director, said she believes the district has made a mistake in discontinuing the Japanese and Hmong language courses.

She noted that, without the two languages, the district will only offer Western languages to students. It's important, Thesing-Ritter said, for students to have teachers of color "teaching languages that are not the languages they hear at home."

"We can do better," she said to the board.

Pearl Xiong, a freshman at North High School, began her speech by expressing her disappointment with the district.

"Not only have you guys decided to end Asian language classes, but you didn't confide in students and teachers who are affected," Xiong said. "So many people from my community are losing our language. We don't have a country, nor a homeland. .... I've struggled with my race and ethnicity my whole life. This language class isn't just a class for students; it's a place for my peers and I to come together to share and validate our experiences in the school system."

She added: "You eat out at our restaurants. You pick and choose what you want from our culture. ... But you don't know our history, and it seems that you guys don't respect it."

Board mulls response

After the hour-long public comment session, members of the board contemplated next steps.

Ultimately, Board President Tim Nordin told the Leader-Telegram, decisions pertaining to courses and curricula are delegated to Johnson and district administration.

"Our job is to accept those decisions as they come as long as the board deems them reasonable, even if the board doesn't agree with the decision," Nordin explained. "If the board, as a body, says, 'This decision is not reasonable within our policies,' then the board can overrule it, override it or take control of it by adjusting policy to change the boundaries that we've set."

Nordin indicated that members of the board expressed enough interest in the matter to warrant further discussion.

As a next step, Nordin said the board must now add the issue to an upcoming agenda — likely sometime in December. During that time, the board will discuss the reasonability of the district's decision to discontinue Japanese and Hmong language courses.

If deemed unreasonable, the board will determine how governance policy should change to ensure the decision is voided and similar situations don't happen in the future.

"Reasonable" is loosely defined, however. Compliance with board policies, operational concerns between the board and administration, and other factors all play a role.

"We're all working on difficult decisions," Nordin said. "We have to have that flexibility to decide amongst ourselves, 'What does a reasonable person feel on this? Is this decision reasonable to us as a board?'"

And, he added, the board may not even need to rule on the decision's reasonability at all. Johnson and district administration are able alter or backtrack the decision without the board's approval. Nordin said Johnson took note and really listened to the concerns of the community, and both the board and district should take some time to think carefully about next steps.

"There will need to continue to be discussions between board and administration about the feedback received, as well as attention to the areas of concern brought out by the program review," Johnson said. "Sustainability of multiple languages is a primary focus for our team."

Even if the district does undo the decision to drop Japanese and Hmong, Nordin said the board will still likely choose to discuss operational procedures surrounding similar scenarios.

"We do all have the same intentions, the same desires, moving forward," Nordin said. "We may not always get there in a way that feels good, so we do want to continue to work on this as a team. And that includes administration, the board and members of the community, as well."