Arabhi Sundararajan's daughter, a Gunn High School freshman, travels to a Hindi school in Fremont every Sunday for a three-hour course in the language she's been learning since kindergarten.
It's an investment in time and money that the family, which speaks Hindi at home, has decided to make. But they shouldn't have to, Sundararajan believes.
She's part of a group of passionate parents who have revived a yearslong campaign to push the Palo Alto Unified School District to offer Hindi as a world language at its two high schools. Several spoke at a December school board meeting, arguing that Hindi is a global language, spoken by millions of people, that both Indian and non-Indian students should be able to learn at their public high schools. (The district does already accept at least one Hindi school's courses as credit toward high schoolers' language graduation requirement.)
Hindi "is taught at most universities, including Stanford and UC Berkeley, so why not at the school level, especially if the students are demanding it?" said Rachna Dhir, another parent involved in the effort.
"Ten years ago, maybe it was the time for Mandarin," she added. "Similarly, today is the time for Hindi."
The opportunity to add Hindi as a world language for the next school year has passed, given the district's requirement that new course proposals be submitted by November. (Typically individual teachers or schools, not parents, propose new courses, according to the district.) But the parents are still eager to work with the school district and have offered to serve as an informal task force that could help the district navigate potential roadblocks to offering Hindi.
The campaign to include Hindi as a language at the public schools stretches back to 2015, when a Palo Alto father whose children were attending the same Hindi school in Fremont, Madhu Bhasha Kendra, unsuccessfully pushed for a district program. Sundararajan picked his effort up again two years later, launching an online petition that gathered close to 400 signatures.
Sundararajan's family is from South India, and she wanted her children to maintain their connection to written and spoken Hindi more formally. As elementary students, they learned Hindi through an independent, nonprofit after-school program located at Palo Alto elementary schools. For middle and high school-level courses, they went on to Madhu Bhasha Kendra, which is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and approved by the University of California system.
Sundararajan's petition argued that offering Hindi at the high schools would alleviate the stress of an additional after-school activity for overburdened students; expose more students to the history, culture and heritage of South Asia; allow more choice for students; and give an edge to students who might go on to careers in global business. Hindi is the most spoken language in India and the fourth in the world after Mandarin, Spanish and English, according to the petition.
Madhu Bhasha Kendra has offered its support to the parents' effort, including writing curriculum and providing credentialed Hindi teachers to the school district.
The last new foreign language added in Palo Alto schools, Mandarin, became a controversial, hotly debated process, even sparking concern that proponents would pursue a charter school if the board didn't approve a local immersion program.
Gunn's language department now offers classes in French, German, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. Palo Alto High School students can take American Sign Language, French, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese or Spanish.
From the district's perspective, adding a new language is complicated, especially without a teacher to champion it. Superintendent Don Austin wrote to the parents in December that "the hurdles at this point in time are too large to consider the addition of an entire program."
Language courses require sufficient demand be sustained over time and a reallocation of staff and students, he told the Weekly.
"A common rule of thumb is that adding languages requires at least two sections at the entry level to have a chance of sustainability in the future due to natural attrition. If an entry level course begins with one small section, the numbers only diminish over the years," he wrote in an email to the Weekly. "This leads to level 3 and 4 courses that may not have enough students to run, creating difficult decisions about the school district's obligation to provide a full sequence for students."
The district would also have to hire a credentialed teacher "with no chance of filling a five-period schedule," he said.
Austin also noted that the parent advocacy is based at Gunn, and "Paly has not weighed in on the conversation and has not expressed an interest."
He said that the district is looking at more ways to accept credit for courses offered outside the district.
The parents, however, have been undeterred by Austin's response and are heartened that the district is engaging with them after years of minimal to no response. They are asking the district to work with them transparently and remain open to finding solutions to challenges rather than shutting the process down.
"We don't want to just be told that it cannot be done," Sundararajan said. "That transparency has to be there from the beginning. We don't want a repeat of 2015 and 2017. Everybody has very limited time and energy. Generations are just going without reaping the benefit of something."
Parent Pallavi Jagasia encouraged the district to "think outside of the box" and seize the opportunity to offer a language that most other public schools in the area don't.
"We understand the district has standard operating processes for how courses are added," she said. "We would like to see the district and board think like a pioneer."