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As High School Ethnic Studies Bill Advances, Some Bay Area Schools Are Ahead of the Curve

A bill that cleared another hurdle in the Legislature this week would make a one-semester ethnic studies class a graduation requirement for California high school students, beginning with those graduating in the 2029-30 school year.

AB 101, authored by Assemblymember Jose Medina (D-Riverside), would require public and charter schools to offer at least one ethnic studies course starting in the 2025-26 school year. The Senate Education Committee passed the measure Wednesday by a 4-2 vote. It heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee next month. If the Senate passes the bill – which was already approved by the Assembly on May 27 – Gov. Gavin Newsom could sign it into law by Oct. 10.

The measure was first introduced in January 2019 as AB 331, but Newsom unexpectedly vetoed it last September, saying the ethnic studies model curriculum needed revising. Medina reintroduced the bill as AB 101 in December – and the State Board of Education passed an ethnic studies model curriculum in March.

The model curriculum is voluntary for school districts to adopt and is intended to build upon classes already offered in high schools across the state. It will serve as a guide for schools and lays out the goals and principles of ethnic studies, suggested lesson plans, as well as instructional approaches.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said in March that he recognized the importance of introducing a non-ethnocentric curriculum that would teach students of color about their history.

“After the killing of George Floyd, we sought to provide support to our students for the trauma that the nation, that the world had witnessed,” Thurmond said. “Our students said to us that they wanted to see representations of themselves. They asked us why they didn’t learn about their own histories in school.”

AB 101 has the support of organizations such as the California Teachers Association, the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities and GENup, a student-led advocacy group.

“It’s a big step, no doubt,” Medina said during Wednesday’s hearing. “I think it is something that is overdue in the state and in this country.”

Republican Sen. Brian Dahle, who sits on the education committee and represents the state’s far northeastern region, worries AB 101 would put rural school districts at a disadvantage as they might not have the resources or expertise to put together an ethnic studies curriculum.

“This bill is going to come into law, and then there’s not going to be anything other than what has been proposed,” Dahle said during the hearing. “Let’s talk about the timing of this bill and what curriculum will be available for the thousands of school districts in our state that don’t have the resources to come up with this type of well-balanced curriculum.”

In response, Medina said the bill would give school districts about four years to come up with a curriculum and pointed to the over 900-page state ethnic studies model curriculum districts can utilize.

Districts Already Moving Ahead With Ethnic Studies

Some school districts in the Bay Area and across the state aren’t waiting for AB 101. The Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District is set to pilot its first ethnic studies class this fall – a course asking freshmen to examine power structures in topics like race, nationality, ethnicity and socio-economic and cultural groups in the U.S.

At Saratoga High School, freshmen will have the option of taking either the new ethnic studies class or world geography for a semester.

Mike Davey, a social studies teacher at Saratoga High, co-created the ethnic studies class. He said he hopes students who take it can continue to address issues they’ll learn about such as systemic racism and white privilege throughout the rest of high school – and he emphasized the importance of allowing students to judge facts for themselves.

“Some kids may not believe [systemic racism and white privilege exist] when they come in, but if you give facts and say, ‘You be the judge of these facts,’ then hopefully they understand the problem,” Davey said. “And then they can work on a solution.”

Davey said his team drew on resources from experts, including the Oakland-based Equal Justice Society, an advocacy group focused on school discipline, the school-to-prison pipeline and inequities in the criminal justice system.

In San Francisco, the San Francisco Unified School District announced in March it will make at least two semesters of an ethnic studies class mandatory in its schools starting with the class of 2028.

The Los Angeles Unified School District – the largest in the state – and the Fresno Unified School District have also announced plans to require an ethnic studies course for graduation. LAUSD will require the course as a graduation requirement by the 2023-24 school year, and FUSD will require it beginning this upcoming school year.

But at least one Bay Area high school has required an ethnic studies class long before current statewide efforts gained steam.

Lessons From Berkeley High, Ethnic Studies Trailblazer

Berkeley Unified School District teacher Dana Moran, pictured outside Berkeley High in April. Moran has taught ethnic studies at Berkeley High since 1993. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

At Berkeley High School, ethnic studies has been a mandatory class for ninth grade students since 1990 after a group of parents, students and teachers fought to make the class a district requirement.

The ethnic studies class focuses on culture, race and immigration through sociological, political and historical lenses. It encourages students to make personal connections while investigating the history of current politics and global dynamics and themes of systemic racism.

Dana Moran has been teaching ethnic studies at Berkeley High since 1993, and is now one of seven teachers who currently head seven separate ethnic studies courses.

“In 1990, the board decided to make it a requirement for graduation, but they had no curriculum and no teachers,” she said. “It was given basically to every teacher who had a free period, so English teachers and the baseball and football coaches were both given an ethnic studies section. And it was, I think a pretty unmitigated disaster at that point.”

Three years after the board made ethnic studies a requirement, Berkeley High’s principal made it his mission to hire a group of teachers for the class. Moran was one of them.

The class curricula undergo frequent revisions, and Moran said what is currently being taught at the school is very similar to the state’s ethnic studies model curriculum. But because ethnic studies is a one-semester class, there is not enough time to cover all the topics listed in the model curriculum.

Moran acknowledged it is not possible to comprehensively dive into every racial group that Berkeley High’s body is comprised of in one semester, but said the classes aim to be as inclusive as possible.

“We certainly invite students to check if we’re wrong or add things if they know something,” she said. “We try to make space for students to jump in and add things they know, want to say or feel like needs to be contributed.”

Abby Sanchez, who graduated from Berkeley High in 2020 and now attends Barnard College in New York, took the ethnic studies class during her first year of high school with Courtney Anderson, a former Berkeley High teacher.

She said some of the topics she learned about for the first time had a big impact on her, topics including Jim Crow segregation laws, the War on Drugs and housing accessibility for people of color, in addition to the history of redlining in the Bay Area.

“It really helped me understand the history of the United States, not as a country that once was oppressive, and then changed,” Sanchez said, “but rather, how oppression has been part of U.S. history and still is.”

The class also involved discussion on more sensitive issues.

“I learned about Mexican repatriation, and as a Mexican-identifying person, it’s so hard to learn that,” she said, referring to the forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans during the Great Depression, most of whom were U.S. citizens. “But, all my classmates were learning it with me. There were no classmates that were like, ‘Oh, this didn’t exist. This didn’t happen.’ ”

Sanchez also said that unlike a regular history class, she thought the ethnic studies course helped bridge a gap in historical context between when slavery began in the U.S. up until today.

“In comparison to the AP U.S. history class, there is so much more about lives today, so much more about the history of oppressed peoples and their story, because they’re neglected in everyday academia,” she said. “It’s so easy to silence them, and then we just forget that it happened as a generation because we didn’t experience it. This class was really an important way to make sure their stories continue to be told.”

Mexica Greco, who graduated from Berkeley High in June and plans to attend St. Olaf College in Minnesota this fall, also took Anderson’s ethnic studies class her freshman year. Greco describes herself as mixed-race, but predominantly Asian. She said she had been exposed before to many of the topics that were covered in the class.

“I’m a person of color, and my mom is an immigrant,” she said. “I’ve learned about my history from my mom and my dad, but I remember my classmates not really knowing much and sometimes asking me questions.”

Greco said the class has made her more aware of the inequities that exist in society, to an extent, but she thinks it should be offered to upperclassmen as opposed to freshmen.

“Just because it was a freshman class, it wasn’t as serious as it could have been,” Greco said. “If I took this class as a senior, I would have been able to understand a lot more. I personally think it was good in the moment for what it is, but a lot more could have been covered for an older group of kids.”

Could Ethnic Studies Courses Actually Improve Student Outcomes?

A 2017 study published by Thomas Dee, professor at Stanford University, and Emily Penner, assistant professor of education at UC Irvine, reinforces the growing movement for schools to offer ethnic studies.

The study looked at outcomes for students of a ninth-grade ethnic studies pilot class at several SFUSD high schools beginning in 2010.

Students whose eighth grade GPA was below 2.0 were, by default, assigned to the ethnic studies class during their freshman year with the choice of opting out. The study observed end-of-ninth-grade outcomes for these students, which Dee said was predictive of high school persistence, such as attendance, credit accumulation, GPA and graduation.

Dee and Penner’s study saw a jump in attendance and GPA, in addition to greater credit accumulation for students who took the ethnic studies class relative to those who were less likely to take the course.

“This evidence is suggesting that there’s considerable power in innovative curriculum and pedagogy, like those embedded in ethnic studies,” Dee said. “It’s probably been as influential as any research I’ve ever done. San Francisco Unified went to scale with their ethnic studies course in the wake of our findings. And I think it’s fair to say they contributed to some of the momentum for ethnic studies throughout California.”

Dee and Penner have continued to track high school completion and college entrance outcomes for all students in the original study over the years.

“We’re going beyond the immediate grade nine outcomes to seeing if ethnic studies leads to an increase in educational attainment, in particular, high school completion,” Dee said. “It’s so important because one of the most well documented facts in education policy is that graduating from high school has substantial, long-run benefits for kids.”

The results are expected to be released in a research publication in the coming months.

“I think the ethnic studies model curriculum will show its most promise in places where districts take the model curriculum as a point of departure both for adapting the curriculum to their local circumstances and to supporting teacher capacity to deliver it,” Dee said.

Copyright 2021 KQED