Vashon High School announces decision to end Japanese program

Lower enrollment, staffing challenges and budget limitations are to blame.

School district officials recently announced they are ending the Japanese program at the high school and will begin offering French in the fall.

In a letter about the decision he sent to staff last week, Vashon High School Principal Danny Rock said that maintaining the program had been a priority for him in his six years at the district. However, he added that it had been difficult to maintain the non-traditional language program. In particular, he noted that it was extremely challenging to find staff interested in taking on the part-time position and that enrollment in the course varied.

In a conversation earlier this week, Rock said he was planning on sharing the news with students and parents soon.

“I would expect there to be sadness and frustration,” he said, adding, “It was a very hard decision for me.”

Rock said that Vashon High School has had a sister relationship with Himeji Minami High School in Japan, including an exchange program that dates back to the 1990s.

In recent years, he said, the three classes of Japanese drew between 55 and 85 students. Japanese 1 might have between 22 and 28 students he said, while more than 100 students would take Spanish 1. The courses drew several non-traditional students, he added, including those with an interest in martial arts and anime.

“A lot of kids who would have otherwise not taken a language, they found their home and people,” Rock said about the Japanese program.

He is most sad about that loss, he said, as well as the loss of the connection in the school to the history of Japanese Americans on the island.

Rock also elaborated on the difficulty of hiring a Japanese teacher. The previous instructor was one of a very small number of viable applicants, and this year, he said, the Japanese program was almost canceled because of the lack of a teacher. In fact, Rock said, the district hired the current teacher, Fred Harriman, the Friday before Labor Day. He started the following Tuesday; he was not planning on returning next year, Rock said.

He added that budgetary challenges are a contributing factor in his decision and the timing of it. As part of the budget work, he had to review all of the high school’s programs and priorities.

“I had to ask if I believe I am going to be able to fill this position in time to know if we are going to fill it, or am I going to commit to this at the expense of other positions, where I know I have someone,” he said. “If money were no object, and it did not matter if we were over or understaffed, I would be able to let it play out longer.”

Rock said that the district’s intent is for students currently enrolled in Japanese 1 to be able to complete a Japanese 2 credit, likely through an online course.

Advertising will begin soon for a French teacher.

Superintendent Slade McSheehy also weighed in on the decision, noting that he had learned about the challenges of hiring Japanese teachers, as well as the history, traditions and culture surrounding the Japanese program at VHS.

“We understand this will be a significant step in a different direction. However, our goal is to provide a high quality and sustainable program for our students that also taps into on-island resources and teachers who speak French. We are excited about new possibilities, including new sister cities and other travel/service opportunities,” he said in a recent email.

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