Anti-Immigrant and Racial Clashes Fuel Ethnic Studies’ Growth in Public Schools

Jaweed Kaleem, Governing, February 20, 2018

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Nationwide, states and school systems are refining, expanding or adopting courses that explore history, literature and politics through the eyes of people who aren’t white. The programs, which until recently were banned in Arizona and derided as anti-American, are thriving in unexpected places. Some districts are making ethnic studies compulsory — for whites as well as minorities.

“In our current political context, especially with the president, there has been a huge gain in the critical study of race and ethnicity, and the desire for students to see themselves reflected in what they are learning,” said Julia Jordan-Zachery, a professor at Providence College in Rhode Island and president of the National Assn. for Ethnic Studies. {snip}

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Last May, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb — who took over the job from Vice President Mike Pence — signed a law requiring every high school to offer an ethnic or racial studies elective each year. The move came after years of failed attempts to get similar laws on the books. What changed? Republicans teamed up with Democrats and called for classes to be electives instead of requirements. Students need the “opportunity to take a class that relates to their experiences and heritage,” bill co-sponsor state Rep. Robert Behning, a Republican, said at the time.

Indiana leaders of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People launched an aggressive lobbying effort, spurred in part by police shootings of unarmed black Americans.

In June, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill requiring ethnic studies for all public school students between kindergarten and 12th grade. As in Indiana, racial minority groups — emboldened in part by a number of hate crimes in one of the country’s whitest states — were behind the change.

{snip} Also last June, the Seattle school board said it would weave ethnic studies into its schools’ curriculums after coming under NAACP pressure.

While previous campaigns to establish ethnic studies programs around the U.S. targeted minority groups, the Seattle NAACP made a different case, asserting on its website, “Ethnic studies courses benefit white students, who disproportionately have the privilege to be unaware of the realities of racism.” The argument was similar in the mostly black and Latino city of Bridgeport, Conn., where last October school administrators decided to require students to take a half-year class on African American studies, Caribbean/Latin American studies or a course on race to graduate.

{snip} That includes Kansas and Texas, where legislators are pushing measures that would institute Mexican American studies classes and those on other ethnic groups.

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States and cities are following California, where education officials are standardizing what’s taught in ethnic studies classes after highly touted programs in San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles.

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A key for many programs is their reading lists. At Barack and Michelle Obama Elementary School in St. Paul, Minn., kids in an African American studies class read “Desmond and the Very Mean Word,” a story based of the childhood of future Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu in apartheid South Africa.

At John O’Connell High School in San Francisco, ninth-grade ethnic studies students look at how news and entertainment media portray minorities, and they read from the autobiography of black nationalist Assata Shakur and the Eddie Huang memoir on his experience as an Asian American,”Fresh off the Boat.”

In Sarah Rodriguez’s ethnic studies class at Santa Monica High School, a recent lesson revolved around students discussing activism against gentrification in Boyle Heights, where art galleries and coffee shops have attracted white and more well-off newcomers in the traditionally Mexican American, working-class neighborhood.

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Ethnic studies students’ attendance rates were 21 percentage points higher, they earned more points toward graduation, and their grade-point averages rose by 1.4 points. Students made the biggest gains in science and math, and boys and Latino students made the greatest improvements.

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