Making the Social Studies Switch: School board votes to no longer offer Area Studies elective; decision sparks various opinions among students, teachers

Hailey McEntee, Co-Editor

On Dec. 9, the Blue Valley school board voted to no longer offer Area Studies classes in the district beginning next fall.
Advanced Placement Human Geography and Human Geography will replace the Area Studies classes.
Last month, the district began planning the format of the class based on the curriculum set by the College Board.
The class will be offered to all grades, but it is expected to mostly consist of freshmen.
“The district level decided they want to offer another AP course,” social studies teacher Brian Mowry said. “They decided they wanted to offer it for freshmen because they wanted to increase the rigor of freshman year for kids who wanted to do that. And then [the district] saw a geography course and Area Studies courses as being redundant, so they decided to do away with Area Studies and Contemporary Issues because all that can be covered in a geography course.”
Mowry said he will miss having the ability to go in depth with the Area Studies classes.
“The awesome thing about the three Area Studies courses was that you could spend a significant amount of time going into more immersive activities,” he said. “I would say most kids who have taken my Asia class or my Middle East class would say we really, without actually visiting, have gotten as close as we could to immersing them in those types of cultures. We spend two weeks dealing with Middle Eastern culture and Islam — two whole weeks out of 18 weeks in the semester. You can’t do that sort of thing in Geography, [where] we’ll spend maybe a week on world religions. So, it does give you a broader base, but you don’t get as deep.”
Mowry said students will not gain as much understanding of different cultures without Area Studies classes.
“I’ve traveled a lot, and I’ve gained so much from being exposed to other cultures and different ideas,” he said. “And, of course, I think everybody should do that. Maybe that’s not right for everybody, but, in my opinion, I don’t see how it’s ever damaging. I understand why people think it could be, but I think in the long run, it is never bad to be exposed to new ideas and different things and different perspectives. And that is something that the Area Studies classes did very well. I don’t know if AP Human Geography will do it as well.”
A multitude of students opposed to the decision to get rid of the Area Studies classes spoke out against it before the vote took place.
Sophomore Serena Nangia conducted a petition and collected 430 signatures.
“I spoke at the board meeting,” she said. “People don’t usually speak at the open forum at those, so, beforehand, I was advised that, although they were going to vote, [giving a speech] probably wouldn’t do much. But, I decided to stand up there and give my speech anyway. There’s something my mom always says — she says, ‘Even though you can’t change their minds, you can at least make them feel guilty.’”
Nangia said giving the speech was an intimidating experience, but she was glad she did it.
“There were a lot of powerful people there — the Superintendent and all of the board members,” she said. “After the speech, basically no one clapped except my family.”
Mowry said although Nangia’s speech did not change the decision, she still made an impact.
“It made a difference in [Nangia],” he said. “When she first started talking to me about [giving the speech], I was very skeptical that it would have any effect on the district decision, and I was proved right. But, to the district’s credit, when she gave her perspective, and then also [social studies teacher Kristoffer] Barikmo spoke at the same school board meeting and essentially, gave the same argument and used evidence, Dr. Trigg did allow for the school board members to change the agenda to put that decision off until later. At least, in that way, it was heard, and I’m hoping, at least from Dr. Trigg, it was considered. My worry was that [Nangia] would get discouraged and think she can’t ever do anything to change anything. She really impressed me. And that fact that somebody could do that at her age — because she’s only a sophomore — and for the reason she was doing it, I think it speaks volumes about what she’s going to be able to do when she gets older and has a similar situation and wants to fight for something else.”
Nangia said she received compliments regarding her bravery in giving the speech and an appreciative note from Superintendent Tom Trigg. Nangia said she would encourage students to advocate for their ideas.
“If you believe in something and are passionate about it, you have to at least try,” she said. “Even though it may not make a difference, it’s better to try and fail than to feel like you didn’t even stand up for it. I hope in the years to come, they might reconsider the decision to get rid of the Area Studies classes.”
Since there will no longer be Area Studies classes, Nangia said students will miss out on learning about different cultures.
“People don’t realize how other parts of the world are,” she said. “Because of Area Studies classes, I can talk to my parents and other people about the news like I haven’t been able to do before. [Students] will miss out on being able to hold a conversation with adults about regions — going into interviews or just talking about current events.”
Nangia said she believes students are not educated enough about other cultures.
“Barikmo took a poll in his classes and found that only 16 percent of his students knew who Nelson Mandela was and the impact he had on Africa,” she said. “This is just one example of how students are not educated enough about other countries.”
Nangia said she will miss the discussions and analysis of why people from different regions do what they do and act how they act.
“I have learned so much,” she said. “I learn more every single day.”
Mowry said he thinks removing Area Studies classes is a mistake.
“I don’t think kids are going to get excited about geography class,” he said. “You’re not going to see a kid who comes and says, ‘I saw Geography on the curriculum, and I was so pumped.’ But I have kids all the time that come in and say, ‘I want to know more about Africa,’ or ‘I want to know more about Asia.’ So, I think taking that away is bad. We have a hard enough time getting kids excited to learn, so why are we taking away the diversity that kids enjoy?”