My turn: Juneau high schools should keep all language programs

Posted: Sunday, February 22, 2009

Recently, the Juneau School Board made a decision to change some of the language classes offered in the high schools during the next school year. They plan to cancel Russian at Juneau-Douglas High School and close down the Japanese program at Thunder Mountain. The method that they used to decide which school got which language was as simple as a headcount. It's true that there are more Russian students at TMHS than Japanese students, and more Japanese students at JDHS than Russian, but just because a school's student body has a preference or certain favoritism towards one language doesn't mean that they should cancel the other.

It is unknown to me why this decision was made to cancel a language program at each of the high schools, but I know it's unfair. The students at each school should be given equal opportunities to study whichever language they prefer, and this cancellation of languages at the schools is counterproductive to that general mindset.

Those who have been around Juneau for a while remember that a similar event happened about 15 years ago. Back then, the Juneau School Board decided to cancel both the Russian and Japanese programs at JDHS. As we see now, that change did not happen.

The reason that didn't happen 15 years ago is because of community support for both of the languages at the high school. There was a lot of disagreement from the parents, but the determining factor that saved the two languages was the student body. The students showed enough interest in the languages that the school board recalled its decision and opted out of canceling the language programs at JDHS.

A similar event is happening now. Parents are writing letters, students are beginning to take action and petitions are floating around the two schools in support of having both languages at both schools. It is apparent that the student body, again, has something to say about the School Board's decision and is ready to back their claims up to defend their education.

I was one of those few students who took Russian class seriously, and had a certain determination toward studying Russian. I also was one of those students who spent enough time and preparation researching specific topics related to Russia to compete in the State Russian Olympiada, an annual Russian speaking competition held in Anchorage.

The reason that upper-level students study so hard and attend the Olympiada is for one of the two top prizes: three weeks of intense Russian class and cultural immersion in Russia.

Within the Juneau Russian program, there have only been three instances where a student has been selected to attend that program in the past 15 years. Two of the three did not attend for their own reasons. The most recent person to win and accept the offer for increased education in Russian was myself.

This year, there are going to be two Russian Olympiads in Alaska: one in Anchorage, and one in Juneau. The Juneau Olympiada will host more than 75 high school Russian students, and will be on equal merit with that of the Olympiada held in Anchorage. Thus, an increased amount of Russian language students will have a chance to win a trip to Russia to expand their education as I did.

The only reason why there are two Olympiads this year instead of one is because there are two high schools in Juneau that offer Russian. If one high school closes down their Russian program next year, there will be only one Olympiada, in Anchorage. In previous years, only one or two students were able to travel to Anchorage and compete seriously. Everybody else who still wanted to compete in the Olympiada had to submit video, and had less chance of being selected to go to Russia.

As the Russian program grows, it would be appropriate to assume that more students will want to study Russian in high school and possibly in college. If both schools have Russian as a possible language choice, not only will it increase the potential for Russian competition, but that competition also will spark aspiration within the students to study harder to triumph over their counterparts at the opposing school.

It would be a shame if the city lost Russian students who wanted to further their education in language, even if only for competition.

• Shaun Nesheim is a senior and Russian 4 student at Juneau-Douglas High School.

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