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S.F. Board Rejects Race Quotas for Literature

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The San Francisco school board has rejected a proposal that would have mandated racial quotas in the selection of books for high school students.

But following hours of public testimony at a hastily called special meeting late last week, the board voted unanimously to require that literature read by students in class be selected from a "list of writers of color which reflects the diversity of culture, race, and class of the district's student body."

The resolution also requires that the works of "lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender" writers be identified in the curriculum.

The original proposal made this month by board members Keith Jackson and Steve Phillips called for a required high school reading list dominated by nonwhite writers. The two members, both African-Americans, initially proposed that seven of what would be a heftier requirement of 10 books be written by minority authors.

At the request of the board's curriculum committee, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Phillips revised the proposal to mandate that four of seven required books be written by minority authors. Students would have been permitted to select the other three. The committee, however, did not send that proposal to the full board.

"In a district that has such a dramatically diverse student population, if we have a multicultural curriculum, that will help to pull students into reading and to engage them in school," Mr. Phillips, a lawyer, said in an interview last week.

'Ebonics' Revisited

Although districts around the country have embraced multicultural approaches to teaching English in recent years, most, if not all, have merely recommended the inclusion of materials from racially and ethnically diverse sources.

The San Francisco proposal was believed to be the first to suggest a canon based on an author's race--in a state, paradoxically, where various efforts are under way to wipe out race-based preferences in public education.

The plan also sparked local and national criticism that the attempt at diversifying the curriculum had gone too far.

"I'm not supportive of magical numbers or percentages," Waldemar Rojas, the San Francisco schools superintendent, said at a press conference held earlier this month in response to the backlash the proposal created. The schools must provide a "balanced diet of good literature that includes what we know as the classics but also that represents more diversity," he said.

The attention focused on literature selection in San Francisco drew comparisons to the "ebonics" debate across the bay. The Oakland school board last school year approved a measure that would have recognized what is often called black English as the primary language of many of the district's black students. After weeks of debate that drew supporters and opponents nationwide, the district withdrew the measure. ("'Ebonics' Vote Puts Oakland in Maelstrom," Jan. 15, 1997.)

Oakland, however, does not prescribe books based on the authors' race.

"This is the literary equivalent of the ebonics issue," said Sandra Stotsky, a research associate at the Harvard University graduate school of education. "It is taking a good idea that you need some kind of breadth in the curriculum ... and it pushes it into the realm of the ludicrous," said Ms. Stotsky, who wrote a report last fall evaluating California's language arts standards.

Ethnicity Represented

The San Francisco school board's curriculum committee, which is revising the language arts curriculum, was unwilling to support reading by quota, according to Mary Hernandez, a member of the school board.

"The board has never taken a position endorsing racial quotas," said Ms. Hernandez, who chairs the curriculum committee.

"The proposal is too prescriptive. It is inappropriate to take numbers out of the air without being specifically based on research."

The 63,500-student San Francisco district is nearly 30 percent Asian-American, 21 percent Hispanic, 17 percent African-American, and 13 percent white.

The district mandates just three titles for its 19,000 high school students--Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" in 9th grade, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 11th grade, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in 12th grade. The 10th grade English curriculum focuses on ethnicity in literature, and includes a recommended reading list that encompasses a diverse group of authors. The district's list of recommended books at all grade levels is rife with authors of black, Asian, Hispanic, and American Indian heritage. The list includes notations on the authors' race and ethnicity.

Mr. Jackson and Mr. Phillips' proposal made national headlines, and brought focus to the state's recommended book list, which has not been revised in nearly a decade.

The state list, which includes a culturally varied group of authors, will be reviewed this year, and an update--to include newer authors such as The Joy Luck Club's Amy Tan--is expected in the fall, according to Doug Stone, a spokesman for the California education department.

'Well-Rounded Student'

Some teachers in San Francisco assailed the two board members' proposal, saying they already incorporate a wide variety of literature in their courses.

"I thought it was quite demeaning. Why is it that one would think that teachers teaching in a multicultural situation would not already be using multicultural literature?" said Betty Tillman, an English teacher at the district's Raoul Wallenberg Traditional High School. "The classics are also taught. I do not believe that we should pit one against the other.

"Our goal is developing a well-rounded student, not a student well-versed in one area."

But Mr. Phillips said that recommending books, even if they represent a varied group of authors and themes, does not guarantee students will be exposed to a multicultural curriculum.

The challenge of covering a wide range of material in a limited amount of class time, along with inadequate funding for new books, makes it more likely that newer works will get short shrift, if they are included at all, he said.

"We are striving for some level of certainty that the curriculum will be thoroughly multicultural," Mr. Phillips said."We have to have some assurances of diversity."

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  • Read Superintendent Waldemar Rojas' statement on the proposed changes to the San Francisco Unified School District's language arts curriculum.
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