A Merced school district tried to end its Punjabi classes. It didn’t go over very well

Students and parents in Livingston, where about 20 percent of the residents are Sikh Punjabi, said they felt blindsided recently by a decision from high school leaders to end the Punjabi language program.

Livingston High School has offered Punjabi language classes for about nine years and it looked to be in peril this month until a groundswell of support from the community made leaders from the Merced Union High School District change their minds.

Advocates for the classes say Punjabi is the third most spoken language in Livingston, behind Spanish and English. The high school is one of 10 in the country that offer the program, many of which are in the Central San Joaquin Valley.

Language — just like art and history — are important for steeping students in Punjabi culture, advocates say.

“(It’s) not just culture. It’s directly tied to business,” Livingston resident Mandeep Singh said. “Punjabi is the third most spoken language in the Central Valley in the business world. This is not just a class at a high school.”

“They get college credit for it. Kids get to talk to their grandparents, tells stories,” he continued.

That sentiment was echoed by parents and high school students who have benefited from the class. Anmol Singh graduated recently from the high school.

“Because of this program, I can read and write Punjabi,” he said.

Members of the Punjabi community in Merced County have organized meetings to garner support and inform parents about the nixing of classes. Many of them showed up Wednesday to a Merced Union High School District board meeting to express their concerns.

The City Council passed a resolution on June 4 to support the cause to save the classes.

Advocates said the classes are only offered to students who are familiar with the language, which adds to the difficulty of filling up its seats. It’s the only program in the Valley that doesn’t offer the language to beginners, the advocates said.

The school board’s meeting room was packed with many more people spilling into the hallway to express their displeasure with losing the class.

The school board saw the writing on the wall and announced they had secured a temporary teacher for the course and it will continue in the new year.

School board President Richard Lopez said the decision to pull the class was made due to a lack of enrollment. There are 25 students enrolled in the class for the new year, officials said.

“We are moving forward in trying to find a certificated instructor for that class,” he said. “We want to keep that language. ... We also want to better communicate with our communities if these things are going to be happening in the future.”

Communication was a sticking point for a number of advocates.

Beyond potentially losing the course, they said they were frustrated at a lack of transparency. Many of them only found out about the end of the class within the past two weeks after advocates held gatherings to spread the word.

“We took this conversation into the Gurdwara, the Sikh temple, and we had a lot of community members show up to this meeting. They were very upset,” community organizer Jaspreet Kaur said. “They were very angry and had no idea (and) that there was zero communication.”

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