Should Hindi be taught in the school district? On Tuesday, May 22, parents from the non-profit Hindi USA language school showed up at the West Windsor-Plainsboro school board meeting, starting a dialogue on integrating Hindi into the district’s curriculum. Twenty-five people showed up in noticeable green T-shirts that read “I Support Hindi in WW-P,” but the group said it represents the sentiments of more than 200 parents from the language school and many others in the community.
Gulshan Mirg, coordinator of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Hindi USA school, described the plan to bring Hindi to WW-P. “We had already met with the assistant superintendent (Martin Smith) and it was time to come to the board meeting and make our case. We needed to make them aware that there is a growing population of Indians here, and they need to do something for the language,” Mirg says.
Mirg and some fellow advocates for “Hindi in WW-P” also attended the Monday, June 4, meeting of the school board’s curriculum committee, and board members informed them that the topic would likely come up for discussion at the final board meeting of the school year, on Tuesday, June 26.
Finding a place for Hindi among WW-P’s language electives isn’t a novel concept, but the group at the May 22 board meeting has some specifics in mind. Their efforts are a decade in the making as the Indian population has expanded in central New Jersey.
The Hindi USA school, held every Friday night at Grover Middle School, was started five years ago. Although the location is in West Windsor, on Hindi USA’s website it’s listed as the Plainsboro branch. There are 14 other locations of Hindi USA in the state including schools in Montgomery, Lawrenceville, and South Brunswick. The organization is based in Pemberton.
Today Hindi USA in West Windsor-Plainsboro has grown to include 179 students, 27 teachers, and five volunteer teachers.
“Hindi USA was started 11 years ago in New Jersey with three main goals: to teach Hindi to kids living in America, to prepare Hindi teachers to instruct students, and to spread Hindi in public schools. First, we have enough teachers ready to teach Hindi as they’ve been doing this for 10 years. Number two, we have an established curriculum and we will be glad to help our public schools by lending our teachers and professionals to work with them in developing Hindi as a formal world language curriculum,” Mirg said.
In April parents from Hindi USA reached out to the two newly elected school board members, Michele Kaish and Yibao Xu, as well as Finance Committee Chairman Tony Fleres, Rachelle Feldman-Hurwitz, and Board President Hemant Marathe. (Mirg is a neighbor of both Xu and Feldman-Hurwitz in Plainsboro’s Walker Gordon Farms neighborhood.)
All five of these board members recently paid visits to Hindi USA’s Friday night classes at Grover, witnessing how many parents stand outside the school while their children continue studying once the school week is done. According to Mirg, Hindi USA’s enrollment at Grover is 179 students in 10 different Hindi classes.
Hindi USA’s first initiative in West Windsor-Plainsboro was circulating a petition last year. (The petition is available online at http://www.petitiononline.com/WWPhindi/petition.html). But that effort yielded little feedback, so parents decided to talk with district leadership face-to-face. They met with Russell Lazovick, the superintendent for curriculum and assessment last year (Martin Smith’s predecessor) in May of 2011.
“[Lazovick] told us the district was looking at incorporating more languages, and Hindi was definitely one of the languages being considered,” Mirg says.
Smith began the job following Thanksgiving recess. Seeing an opportunity to connect with an educator who played a key role in instituting Hindi in Edison, Hindi USA parents decided to take up the idea with Smith. They met him within his first month on the job.
“We had a discussion where [Smith] told us that he came here from Edison schools (with a high Indian population) and he spoke about traveling to India for his work. Even though Smith might want to support introducing Hindi here, he cited budgetary issues as one potential obstacle,” Mirg says.
Hindi USA is far from discouraged. Mirg says that if the school district can spend over $150 million each year, taking out around $200,000 to offer Hindi courses “should not be a big deal.”
Hindi USA has seen success in its five years in WW-P, and while Mirg recognizes that asking for Hindi to become part of the school curriculum would reduce the need for his school’s operation, he says Hindi USA classes could serve as complementary courses.
In a phone interview, Mirg described the current school’s operation from its introductory level up through the high school age. “We have a complete defined curriculum with text books. Parents enroll their students at the age of five or six and it takes them eight years to master the language,” he said.
Advocates for Hindi in WW-P see Hindi providing a new opportunity for WW-P to be an innovator among school districts.
Parents at the May 22 board meeting said the key to mastering Hindi (and most languages) is giving kids experience early on. They say starting students with Hindi during their high school years — as was done in Franklin Township and Edison — will be too little, too late. Hindi USA’s vantage point differs from any other Hindi course offerings currently in place in the U.S.
“We suggest that schools begin offering Hindi in the fourth grade. In the first year (fourth grade) the kids begin, and then each year they’ll slowly proceed up one level. By the time they reach the later stages of high school, they have up to eight years of Hindi under their belts,” Mirg said.
Taking eight years to learn Hindi to a proficient level coincides with the fundamental structure of Hindi USA’s curriculum. Mirg added that with the lower grades such as fourth grade, just one Hindi teacher would be necessary for the West Windsor-Plainsboro district.
“Smith told us that in Edison, when they started Hindi in high school, by that time in a student’s life there was enough pressure — no parents or students wanted them to take up another language. We also met Neelam Mishra, the Hindi teacher in Edison, and parents from that district. Everybody said the same thing — they don’t want their children to change their language studies in high school. Had it been started at an earlier stage, they would have definitely chosen Hindi,” Mirg says.
“By introducing Hindi at the elementary level, WW-P schools will reinforce a strong Hindi foundation (phonetics and grammar) acquired in the beginning years of school. Setting them to be bilingual at an early age will help them grasp the fundamentals of the language without additional academic pressure that builds during higher grades. Hindi education in schools will help bridge the missing language link between schools and universities,” the petition reads.
For the parents who spoke at the May 22 meeting, Hindi is also symbolic of preserving Indian heritage.
“The language is the backbone of the culture. We want to forward this not only to our kids, but to all future generations. Please help us preserve the most ancient culture and language of the world,” the online petition states.
Creating a Hindi charter school has never crossed Hindi USA’s collective mind. Mindful of the unsuccessful PIACS charter school for teaching Mandarin through dual immersion with English, Mirg says his personal belief is that charter schools are not a fair use of public (taxpayer) money. He believes the few should not benefit on the backs of the majority.
“I will never support that. The money for charter schools comes from the public. Whatever we do, we have to think about all the residents,” he said.
In the online petition, Hindi USA commends the Chinese community in West Windsor and Plainsboro for working to incorporate Chinese into the district’s curriculum. “We are happy that the school board is offering Chinese language in WW-P schools right from the elementary school. It was a consistent, well-organized effort by the Chinese community. It is high time we take a united stand and plead with the school board to help start Hindi as well.”
The “Hindi in WW-P” petition also acknowledged that efforts must be home-grown. A spokesperson from the New Jersey Department of Education said “the introduction of a new language in a school district is always demand-driven,” and Mirg continues to encourage all interested parents in West Windsor and Plainsboro to sign the petition and forward it to friends and neighbors.
Mirg’s father ran a transportation business in India while his mother was a homemaker. Aside from working on organization and resources for Hindi USA and its West Windsor and Plainsboro families, Mirg works full-time as an IT professional. He earned his bachelor’s degree in finance from Delhi University.
In 2000 Mirg and his family came to the U.S. and originally lived in South Edison. In 2009 he and his wife made a decision to buy a home here. They were attracted to Plainsboro and the Walker Gordon Farms community, with the WW-P school district as a traditional big draw.
After working in the U.S. and in American companies for a few years, Mirg attended Rutgers Business School to earn an executive MBA. He says despite the notion that business in India is conducted in English, Hindi can play a role in improving communications for students and professionals.
One example Mirg cited was a high-level banking executive from Charlotte who was assigned to work in India for two years. The man struggled to communicate outside of the office, so he hired a Hindi tutor. Parents who spoke at the May 22 board meeting also brought up the advantages of students learning Hindi to acquire new contacts, job options, or internships and expanding their opportunities to study abroad.
Mirg says Hindi USA is now primed to help the district develop a curriculum for Hindi language education. One idea he mentioned is for a pilot program to be instituted in the upcoming school year. Mirg says finding one or two state-certified Hindi teachers would be feasible.
The WW-P parents’ online petition to bring Hindi to the school district states that, in effect, Hindi in American schools would be a part of global commerce.
“Recent trade relations and joint ventures (information technology) between India and the U.S.A. have embarked strong ties and powerful economic relations between the two largest democracies in the world. All-American companies, from General Electric to General Motors, are going to be looking halfway around the world to India as their best shot for improving profits in the coming years (Forbes.com).”
Also referenced in the petition is a US-India education initiative, set forth by President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2009. The agreement allocated $10 million in combined funding to increase university linkages and faculty development between Indian and U.S. universities.
HindiUSA.org, the parent organization’s home website, reflected on the timing and development of world language curricula used by most American schools.
“Before 1970 more people from France, Germany, and other European countries immigrated to the United States and demanded that their kids be taught the languages of their parents. There was more economic and cultural collaboration between United States and those European countries then. At the present time, there are more Hindi-speaking people living in the United States compared to French and German speaking communities, and it makes greater sense to make efforts to help institute Hindi as an elective language in American schools now.”
Aware of the community’s diversity, the school district actually planned on bringing Hindi to students this summer, although not through its curriculum. Last fall the board approved a STARTALK grant application of $99,250 for a Hindi/Urdu summer immersion camp, which was submitted to the state (WW-P News, November 18, 2011). But as the end of the school year approaches, could Hindi’s official beginning in WW-P be on the horizon?