California will soon provide ethnic studies classes for all high schoolers. Here’s why.
In a second-floor classroom at San Francisco’s Washington High School, David Ko is leading freshmen in a discussion about bullying. But it’s not the typical conversation about treating others nicely.
“We’re learning about power — political, economic, social — our race, ethnicity, culture, nationality,” says 14-year-old freshman James Liu.
That’s because ethnic studies is not simply a history course detailing the achievements of members of different racial groups; the curriculum is conscious of and sometimes analytical about how race and ethnicity are intertwined with power.
Earlier this fall, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that will, by 2019, create an ethnic studies program for all of the state’s public high schools. Three similar bills failed in recent years, over lack of funding or concerns that they would create additional red tape.
Ko’s class, which he describes as a good representation of Washington High’s diversity — 64 percent Asian, 13 percent Hispanic, 8 percent white and 5 percent African American — engages in weighty and sometimes personal discussions. Earlier this year, for example, they had a conversation about changing their school’s name because its namesake, George Washington, was a slave owner.
“Some students got very emotionally charged and moved by it,” says Ko. “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.”
Classes like this one are taught at almost all of San Francisco Unified’s 19 high schools. Washington was one of the first campuses to offer ethnic studies in a pilot program, beginning eight years ago. Two years ago, San Francisco expanded the program across the city.
Now a committee of teachers, professors, community members and students will spend the next two years developing an ethnic studies curriculum that will be taught across the state. It’s not as simple as replicating San Francisco Unified’s lessons. In San Francisco, ethnic studies is a ninth grade class that includes the histories of minority groups — including Black, Latino and Asian Americans — as well as curriculum about how race may affect power and opportunity. In other schools, such as in Los Angeles, courses might be focused on one topic, such as African American history or Mexican American literature. Currently, 20 California school districts already teach ethnic studies or are in discussions to add them.
San Francisco’s courses may be a good example of what other classes in California may look like, although organizers want to leave enough flexibility to tailor the lessons to the needs in different parts California will soon provide ethnic studies classes for all high schoolers. Here’s why.: