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Whiteland High School offers first-ever Punjabi language class to serve growing population

Ten percent of students in the Clark-Pleasant school district in Johnson County speak Punjabi.

WHITELAND, Ind. — Whiteland Community High School is offering students a new foreign language class this year. But it's not foreign to most of the students who signed up.

The Punjabi class is helping a growing population on the south side connect to their heritage while bringing understanding in their community.

Punjabi is spoken by Sikhs and other people from the Punjab region of India. Ten percent of students in the Clark-Pleasant school district in Johnson County speak Punjabi. Whiteland High School now offers Punjabi for foreign language credit. The teacher, Kuldeep Waraitch, believes the new program might be the first for a public school anywhere in the Midwest.   

"It is very special," said Waraitch. "I'm getting a lot of positive feedback every single day when I go to my temple, or if I go to the community and when we have get-togethers. People always say they are very excited that the school started this program."

The Punjabi alphabet contains 41 letters with 10 vowels. Most of the students taking the Punjabi Heritage class speak the language because they hear it at home. But now, those students are starting to write it and read it for the first time. 

"It means a lot, honestly, because it helps me stay attached to the culture," said junior Rubjot Singh. "Like my parents, they know how to read and write in Punjabi, but I didn't know. And now I'm learning it through this. So, in the future, I could keep my kids attached to the culture and everything." 

Waraitch had worked in the school district for 16 years as an English Language Learners instructional assistant, helping students from Punjab and other places around the world grasp the English language in an Indiana public school. 

Now Waraitch has about 70 students learning Punjabi, including an introduction class for American students completely new to the language. Because this is such a unique class, she is creating much of her own curriculum.

"When they write a word, that's like, the world to me," Waraitch said. "I was like, 'Oh my god.' I'm so proud of them. I'm so happy to teach the students Punjabi."

The class also provides a bridge for understanding between the growing Punjabi population and the Whiteland community.

"We are friends with white people, but they don't know our culture," senior Mehek Kukreja said. "I feel like this class, and the administrators noticing that so many kids are coming in, incorporating a class like this, it's definitely going to be helpful."

Whiteland Community High School principal Benji Betts provided this statement:

"With a large Punjabi population living in our school district, we just felt there would be interest in a language class at the high school. About ten percent of our students speak the language at home, so we were just trying to meet what we thought was a need among our student population. So far, it's been well received with even some non-Punjabi speakers opting for the class. We aren't aware of any other Punjabi language classes in Indiana or the Midwest."

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