Hmong, Punjabi language classes planned for Central High

A first grader in a Hmong bilingual education class at Hidalgo elementary school in Fresno works on a project in their native language.
A first grader in a Hmong bilingual education class at Hidalgo elementary school in Fresno works on a project in their native language. Fresno Bee file

Hmong and Punjabi language classes are coming to Central High School, thanks to a grassroots effort as leaders of both communities teamed up.

More than 300 people have signed an online petition in support of the initiative on the website for Jakara Movement, a local Punjabi youth leadership nonprofit group.

Other than English, Spanish, Punjabi and Hmong are the top three languages spoken by Central High students.

Latino students make up more than half of Central High’s population, according to enrollment numbers from the 2015-16 school year. Asian students make up about 15 percent, though state figures don’t break that down. The petition says Punjabi youths make up more than 10 percent of Central High’s enrollment.

Gurdeep Shergill, a teacher at Central Unified who worked with Jakara Movement on the effort, said many Punjabi youths – including his own children – speak the language, but can’t read or write it. But he said the classes wouldn’t benefit only Punjabi students.

“Our vision is for our Hispanic kids, white kids, black kids, Asian kids – a diverse group of kids – to attend these classes,” he said, noting that Punjabi is also spoken in Canada, India and England. “It’s going to open up an opportunity for any child who is interested.”

Central Unified School Board member Terry Cox led the push to add the language classes. At the meeting on Sept. 27, board members listened to a presentation about the classes, including a timeline for implementation. Next, the board needs to adopt curriculum for the classes and hire a teacher for each language. They’ll have to adopt course materials and outlines before adding the classes to the school’s master schedule to offer them by next fall.

The only Central San Joquin Valley school offering Punjabi language classes is Kerman High. The language is also taught at Yuba City High, James Logan High in Union City, and Livingston High. Cox said she hasn’t heard of any nearby high schools offering Hmong, though Fresno State University recently added a Hmong minor.

Cox said the languages will start at the beginning level, but it is hoped the classes expand to include three years of education. The school also has Spanish and French courses.

Around 2008, there was an effort to bring Punjabi classes to the high school, but the community wasn’t as vocal, Cox said.

Since then, she has worked to build trust with the Punjabi and Hmong communities.

“It took us some years to get the community to feel open enough to working with the district about their needs,” she said.

The biggest catalyst for being able to offer the classes now, Cox said, is local control funding. Under California’s Local Control Funding Formula, which was enacted in 2013, districts with “disadvantaged pupils,” such as those living in poverty and English learners, get extra funding. Districts also have more discretion over how to spend the money.

“In the past we didn’t have a lot of flexibility in encouraging foreign language classes for our underserved students,” she said, adding that the classes won’t be an additional cost because the district had already planned to add teachers.

Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo