Race, Ethnic Studies Will Be a Graduation Requirement in Conn. District

By Brenda Iasevoli — October 31, 2017 3 min read
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Public high school students in Bridgeport, Conn. will be required to take a course in African American Studies, Latin American Studies or Perspectives on Race to earn a diploma, reports the CT Post. The prerequisite will be put in place beginning in the 2021-2022 school year.

The city school board unanimously approved the new requirement last week, making the district one of just a few in the country that have raised ethnic studies courses above the status of an elective. Most notably, public high schools in Philadelphia made African American history a course requirement in 2005, and students in Los Angeles and seven other California school districts are required to take an ethnic studies class.

The rise in ethnic studies course offerings in K-12 schools came about, in part, as a response to the shuttering of a popular Mexican-American course offered in schools in Tucson, Ariz. The Tucson school board cancelled the course after the schools chief at the time threatened to withhold from the school district $15 million in state funding, arguing that state law prohibits public schools from offering courses that are designed for a particular ethnic group, advocating ethnic solidarity, or promoting resentment toward a race or group of people. This past August, a judge ruled the ban had discriminatory intent.

Since the ban was first enacted, more and more educators across the country have advocated for ethnic studies classes as one way to engage diverse student bodies by offering courses that present the history of communities of color.

Nearly half of Bridgeport’s more than 21,000 students are Hispanic, 36 percent are black, 11 percent are white, and 100 percent receive free or reduced price lunch, according to 2014-2015 school year data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

“It is going to make a great deal of difference to our children and our families,” said vice chairman of Bridgeport’s school board Sauda Baraka, according to the newspaper. “It will really help us with the learning process. Cultural competency has been shown to change the direction of young people and make them more interested in learning.”

A 2016 study out of Stanford University supports Baraka’s assertions. It showed that taking a course examining “the roles of race, nationality and culture on identity and experience” improved grades, attendance, and graduation rates. A study by the University of Arizona of Tucson’s controversial Mexican-American studies program showed similar positive academic benefits for students.

Bridgeport students will have a choice between half-year courses in African American studies, Latin American studies, or a class called Perspectives on Race that explores issues surrounding U.S. race relations from the American slave trade on up to current events. The course in its current form includes a “cultural exchange component” with nearby Oxford High School, whose students are mostly white. Whichever course students choose will be paired with a required half-year civics class.

For now the focus will be on writing the curriculum, buying appropriate course books, and training teachers in how to teach the classes. The CT Post reports that the district may seek guidance on the curriculum from professors at nearby Fairfield University. As for the courses’ estimated $180,000 price tag, the district plans to apply for grants.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.