California’s Push to Provide Ethnic Studies for All High Schoolers Is a Model For Our Nation

Lead Photo: Héctor Navejas
Héctor Navejas
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In 1968, San Francisco State University students known as the Third World Liberation Front began striking in an effort to push their university to initiate an ethnic studies program. The Third World Liberation Front succeeded. In the process, it inspired University of California at Berkeley students to demand that their school establish a similar program. Ethnic studies eventually spread across the country. But even with all the gains achieved in the last five decades, it continues to face an uphill battle. Lawmakers in Arizona and Texas, for example, have outright banned the studies because some believe they promote reverse racism and welcome leftist ideology in schools. Amid many attempts to thwart ethnic studies nationwide, California’s become a model for our nation.

In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB-2016 into law. The bill – sponsored by Assembly member Luis A. Alejo – had bipartisan support in both houses. By 2019, all California high school students will have the chance to learn about different cultures. AB-2016 doesn’t require the teaching of ethnic studies in schools, which Alejo’s 2015 bill aimed for. (Two other similar bills also failed in recent years.) But it does open the door for students to learn from material that doesn’t erase their history. In the next two years, a committee of teachers, students, community members, and professors will develop an ethnic studies curriculum that’s suitable for schools across California.

While there are some who are certainly critical of AB-2016, there are others who believe this may signal a change in both California and the rest of the country. “It is the biggest piece of ethnic studies legislation passed in this country’s history,” Nolan Cabrera, an education professor at the University of Arizona told the Huffington Post. “There’s a saying in education that ‘as California goes, so goes the rest of the country.’ And this is looking very promising not just for students in California, but for those in the rest of the country as this becomes a more accepted educational practice.”

Ethnic studies courses have been taught in the US since the 1960s. However, since so few schools around the country teach these subjects, the National Association of Ethnic Studies doesn’t have any official count at the high school level.

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In some of California’s public schools, ethnic studies have already taken root, and students are already seeing the benefits of courses that more accurately represents them. About three-quarters of California’s students are people of color. San Francisco Unified’s 19 high schools began teaching ethnic studies eight years ago. A pilot program began at Washington High School, before expanding through the city two years ago.

In David Ko’s Washington High classroom – made up of 64 percent Asian, 13 percent Hispanic, 8 percent white, and 5 percent African American students – ethnic studies have helped them look at things through a new viewpoint. Earlier in the year, students discussed whether or not their school – named after George Washington, a slave owner – should change its name. “Some students got very emotionally charged and moved by it,” Ko told PRI. “We were able to have that discussion and at the end of the class period, no one was calling anyone names, there weren’t grudges held, people didn’t throw any punches.”

A Stanford University study released this year found that ethnic studies benefit students. They miss fewer days at school, they get better grades, and even graduate at higher rates. This is especially true in Latino and male students. That’s why San Francisco Unified offers these courses starting in the ninth grade. Waiting until 12th grade means that fewer students will see these benefits.

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In Santa Ana, students took a cue from the original champions of ethnic studies. Back in May, they packed a Santa Unified School District board meeting and called for an expansion of ethnic studies, namely by making a requirement to graduate high school. “We want ethnic studies implemented throughout all the schools and we want it for high school as a graduation requirement,” Oscar Martinez, a seventh-grader at Spurgeon Intermediate told OC Weekly. “I’m pretty interested in every ethnicity, I want to learn about all their backgrounds.”

In 2011, the National Education Assn. review explained that in K-12 textbooks, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos appeared in limited roles. Latinos mostly end up as “figures on the landscape with virtually no history or contemporary ethnic experience,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Ethnic studies aim to “recover and reconstruct” our histories, which have largely been neglected.