The German language program at Ridgefield High School has attracted families from all over the world, has broadened cultural horizons and inspired students to study abroad.
Those were among the points students and parents made at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting in urging reconsideration of the decision to discontinue German next year after years of declining enrollment.
Fourteen spoke in favor of keeping the program.
The announcement caused parents Caroline Chanin and Daniela Kinsbourne to create a petition on change.org to keep the program alive that has accumulated 343 signatures.
“The German program is the crown jewel of the high school,” said Chanin Monday night, citing numerous scholarships that German-speaking Ridgefield students have won over the years.
“In one year, my daughter was transformed into a German speaker and I have another one who studied abroad in Berlin,” she told the board before breaking out into a song from German composer Richard Strauss, which received a round of applause from the packed Town Hall Annex conference room.
Jeremy Haber, a sixth grader from Scotts Ridge Middle School, read comments from the petition.
“I am signing this petition from Heidelberg University in, Germany,” he said, quoting RHS graduate Mary Lodigiani. “The German program at RHS prepared me to study at Heidelberg University this semester, where I will be taking college-level political science courses alongside German university students.
“The German program at RHS inspired me to continue my study of German at the college level — and step out of my comfort zone by enrolling at a German university for a semester. The award-winning German program at RHS is an asset to both the school and its students. It was truly a gift to have the chance to learn a new language from passionate teachers who cared so much about their students.”
Amaka Nneji, who graduated from RHS in 2006 and Dartmouth College in 2010, wrote:
“I am currently studying at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Without the German program at RHS, I would not have differentiated myself enough to be selected to attend these prestigious institutions.”
Parent Bill Dornfeld told the board that his two children graduated the high school in 1997 and 2001, with four years of German each.
“My son went on to get a master’s degree in German from the Department of Modern Languages at Carnegie Mellon,” he said.
Parents and students said that Germany is a critical business market and the language is essential for engineers, scientists, and businessmen to master.
Lisa Brown, whose daughter takes German at RHS, works at IBM and said knowing German is essential. Two of her other children want to take German when they get to the high school.
Louis Haber said schools should prepare students for a global economy and the workforce, and that being proficient in German is a valuable skill to have.
Haber noted that Germany is the fourth largest economy in the world after the U.S., China and Japan, that some of the world’s largest and most successful companies are German, and that Germany is a center of innovation.
Haber also commented that “it would be unthinkable that RHS would not be preparing any students to read primary documents in German, a skill that is necessary for understanding Germany’s history, its important role on the world stage today, and the works of figures such as Freud and Goethe.”
“It would be an incredible disservice to our students not to offer them the opportunity to learn German in high school,” he said.
RHS senior Nicholas Carey wrote: “I find it greatly ironic, consequently, that RHS supports STEM more and more, but denounces German, as it is a very critical language to have in a STEM field. I hope RHS will have enough foresight to understand the value of a German linguistic understanding and how it will greatly complement any engineer, scientist, diplomat, mathematician, technician, etc.”
Parent Phillip Purcell, whose freshman daughter takes German, said the family moved to Ridgefield in part because of the school’s German program.
“We lived in Maryland in a fairly large-sized school district that offered a lot of foreign languages. We didn’t know much about Ridgefield but when we saw German listed at the high school, that reassured us of our choice to move here,” he said. “It was at the very top of our list of needs when we were looking, and I can assure you that foreign languages are in the top five education needs for many other families who are looking to relocate.”
RHS sophomore Tina Kinsbourne and her mother Daniela chose Ridgefield because it offered a German program.
“There’s no other program like it in this area — there are no other options,” Daniela said.
“I didn’t fight it when it was removed from the middle schools, but I have to fight it now.”
“I’ve been speaking it my whole life,” Tina said. “I’ve been to school in Germany, and half of my family lives there. I’m preparing to study abroad in Germany and through the exchange program I’ve created lifelong friendships.”
Sophia Haber, a fellow sophomore at RHS, told the board that she still sends birthday gifts and other packages to her friend in Germany who lived with her family in town last year.
“We’re so lucky — so privileged — here to be able to gain this exposure and the see a whole other part of the world.The German program has given so many Ridgefield students wonderful opportunities in the past and to me now in the present and I think we should be able to allow it to give many more in the future,” she said. “There’s so much for us to gain by keeping this program.”
Board chairwoman Fran Walton thanked the public for its comments after listening for 30-plus minutes and said the board will discuss the topic at its Nov. 14 meeting.
Editor’s note: To sign the petition go to www.change.org/p/sgross-ridgefield-org-sign-to-support-the-german-language-program-at-rhs