The Case for Ethnic Studies in All Schools

In 2010, a coalition of students, parents, teachers, and community advocates organized to win a pilot Ethnic Studies course in five San Francisco high schools. After implementation of the pilot, we continued to work together to evolve the curriculum and plan for its future expansion throughout district.

In 2014, Sandra Fewer, a San Francisco Board of Education Commissioner and former parent organizer for Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth, authored a landmark resolution to expand the curriculum. In December of that year, the policy was passed, providing access to Ethnic Studies classes for every San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) high school student.

Approximately 90 percent of SFUSD pupils are students of color and yet the curriculum remains overwhelmingly Eurocentric, leading many young people to disengage from their academic experience.

Extensive research, including a report from the National Education Association, demonstrates that Ethnic Studies, a curriculum that does reflect the experiences of students of color, has a positive impact on student academic engagement, achievement, and empowerment.

The SFUSD Ethnic Studies curriculum supports students to think critically about race, ethnicity and culture in the context of their own identifies and their lived experiences. By exposing students to the histories of diverse cultures, it offers a more accurate sense of the nation’s complex, multicultural history.

The curriculum is grounded in a social justice framework that provides students with the critical lens necessary to analyze oppression and address issues in their own lives. Some courses also provide hands-on service learning opportunities that support students in making positive changes in their communities.

In the advocacy efforts to win expansion of Ethnic Studies in SFUSD, students consistently testified about their frustration at the absence of historical and cultural figures from communities of color and the dominance of White ones in school curricula. That void, they said, made them feel excluded from what was being taught in most classes.

“It is just wrong that so many kids never learn anything in history that they can relate to or that has anything to do with their heritage,” said Alejandra Mendez-Ruiz, SFUSD senior and a Coleman youth leader.

“It makes us feel invisible and like we don’t have any value. Students in my Ethnic Studies class were way more attentive than in my other classes because we were learning about people that look like us and come from the places our families come from. When you walk into a class and see someone of your own background on the big projector instead of the same old Caucasian male as the hero, it makes you more curious and more excited about learning.”

SFUSD teachers also testified to the power of the curriculum, making the explicit link between Ethnic Studies and the school-to-prison pipeline. They talked about witnessing struggling students improve when they began to learn about their culture’s history – the achievements of the Black Civil Rights movement or the Chicano Movement, for example.

Students became more invested in their own education and felt more embraced by the school community, which had positive affects on the larger school climate.

At San Francisco’s Balboa High School, an Ethnic Studies course is used as an “early retention strategy” for outgoing middle school students identified as “at risk” of failing or dropping out. Earlier this year, Stanford University released findings from a controlled study that revealed that taking this ninth-grade Ethnic Studies course boosted the grades, attendance and course completion rates of participating students.

The academic benefits of the course were so significant, the researchers who conducted the study said they were “shocked” by their own findings.

“Schools have tried a number of approaches to support struggling students, and few have been this effective,” said Emily Penner, co-author of the Stanford report, according to the university’s news service. “It’s a novel approach that suggests that making schools relevant and engaging to struggling students can really pay off.”

Despite the abundance of evidence about the positive impacts of Ethnic Studies, many efforts around the country to expand the curriculum have faced aggressive opposition. Legislators in some states have proposed cutting the curriculum altogether, arguing that it is “anti-American” and teaches divisiveness.

An effort in Texas to add a Mexican-American course as a high school elective failed – in a state where Latinos are the largest ethnic group in public schools. And it wasn’t until July of last year that a federal appeals court ruled that a 2010 Arizona law banning Mexican American studies is discriminatory.

The good news is that a number of individual school districts require Ethnic Studies or are moving in that direction. And while California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation last year that would have made Ethnic Studies courses a statewide requirement, the movement to win future legislation of this kind continues to grow.

California has one of the largest and most diverse student populations in the country, with young people of color making up nearly 75 percent of the student population. We should be setting an example for the nation by ensuring that all students have access to Ethnic Studies courses that broaden and expand their minds, affirm their sense of self and community, prepare them for the diverse workforce of the 21st century and lead to increased engagement and improved academic outcomes.

For those of us that have seen first-hand the many benefits of Ethnic Studies, we will continue to fight for expansion of these courses as an essential component of the quality, culturally relevant education that all our young people deserve.