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South Bay school district considers a plan to save Japanese at Lynbrook High

The district’s Japanese programs are nationally recognized for churning out wins at the country’s Japan Bowl.

Students from Lynbrook High School in San Jose and Cupertino High School in Cupertino pose at the end of the Japan Bowl competition in Washington D.C. in April of this year. (Photo by Jeff Song)
Students from Lynbrook High School in San Jose and Cupertino High School in Cupertino pose at the end of the Japan Bowl competition in Washington D.C. in April of this year. (Photo by Jeff Song)
Elissa Miolene covers education for the Bay Area News Group

Just a few months ago, one of the country’s most renowned high school Japanese programs was at risk of extinction. Struggling with declining enrollment, the Fremont Union High School District had planned to phase out Japanese classes at three of its five campuses — but after an outpouring of community opposition, the district is considering changing course.

Although a final decision won’t be made until January, efforts are being made to retain the program at Lynbrook, Homestead and Fremont high schools, and phase it out at Cupertino and Monta Vista. Chinese — whose projected cut at Homestead was also contested by the community — will continue to be offered at that school, while French would be phased out at Fremont High.

Since 2019, enrollment in Fremont Union’s world language offerings have dropped by 18%, while total enrollment has dropped by 12%, according to the district. Fremont Union also anticipates its student population will drop by more than 2,000 students in the next five years.

“As we face declining enrollment, it gives us all an opportunity to think about what our values are vis-à-vis education. What are our resources, and what are our priorities?” said Jeremy Kitchen, the Japanese teacher at Lynbrook High School. “I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet, as declining enrollment looks like it’s going to continue. Districts all around this area are going to continue to be faced with difficult decisions.”

Fremont Union is far from alone. Across the Bay Area, schools are grappling with declining enrollment, along with the funding, resourcing and staffing implications of that trend. Over the last six years, the district has spent more than $2.4 million overstaffing dwindling classrooms, and has been forced to combine courses once enrollment dipped too low.

That was why initially, the district had proposed cutting one language from each of its five high schools, a change that would have culled the number of campuses offering Japanese programs from all five campuses to just two. After reviewing enrollment data this fall, however, the district said Lynbrook had “sufficient student sign ups” in all four language offerings for the programs to be maintained — and students like 12th grader Maya Swaminathan have been able to breathe a sigh of relief.

“Japanese is really what makes Lynbrook strong,” said Swaminathan. “Of course, we have the computer science and STEM departments. But what really makes Lynbrook stand out is Japanese.”

For years, Lynbrook and other high schools in the district have competed at the Japan Bowl, a national competition where students battle over Japanese language, culture and history. Since 2013, there have only been two years that a Fremont Union High School district team hasn’t won first prize in at least one of the competition’s three levels. And even in those missing years, Cupertino or Lynbrook high schools took every second prize except for one.

Last spring, students at Cupertino High took home first place in two of three of the Japan Bowl’s levels. Lynbrook earned second place in all three.

“Without a Japanese program at Cupertino, those students will be hard-pressed to participate in the Japan Bowl in the future,” said Andy Tsai, a former Japanese student at Lynbrook. “In an increasingly competitive admissions environment, it’s removing one avenue by which students can differentiate themselves and demonstrate academic and extracurricular excellence.”

Still, that decision isn’t final. The proposed, secondary plan is “tentative,” district spokesperson Rachel Zlotziver said, and pending verification of next year’s enrollment projections in December. The following month, the district will then inform schools of their course offerings for the next academic year.

Despite the letdown of losing Japanese at Cupertino and Monta Vista, Ann Jordan, a retired Japanese language teacher in Los Gatos, said she felt like the district had taken the concerns of the community seriously.

“I don’t think they were expecting the level of scrutiny that came upon them (after the phase-out was first announced in April),” said Jordan. “But I do think they listened to the public and tried to come up with a less drastic solution.”