By guest blogger Madeline Will
Ethnic studies classes will soon become a staple in both the Los Angeles and San Francisco school districts, both school boards recently decided.
The Los Angeles Unified School District will now require high schools to offer at least one semester of ethnic studies by the 2017-18 school year, and by 2018-19, the class will be a graduation requirement. In the San Francisco Unified School District, all high schools will offer ethnic studies courses next fall, with the goal for it to be a graduation requirement within five years.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the goal of the ethnic studies classes is to have students explore different perspectives in literature, history, and social justice. Board members said they hope the classes will narrow the achievement gap between minority students and their white and Asian peers.
In San Francisco, the courses, which have been offered in a handful of high schools as part of a pilot program that started six years ago, focus on ethnic identity and race-based systems of oppression. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the program will be a $500,000 annual expense.
The school board resolution said that ethnic studies classes can help close the achievement gap, reduce dropout rates, and increase graduation rates. According to the Chronicle, district officials said that early indications of the pilot program showed that the classes have helped reduce unexcused student absences and increased the participating students’ grade-point averages.
Both districts are diverse—in San Francisco, almost 90 percent of students are students of color, and more than 90 languages are spoken within the Los Angeles district.
In July, a small district near Los Angeles—the 9,400-student El Ranchero school district—was thought to be the first in California to adopt an ethnic studies graduation requirement.
California lawmakers had been considering legislation that would look into implementing a standardized curriculum for ethnic studies across the state, but that has since stalled for lack of funds, according to the Associated Press.
In an essay recently published in the Washington Post, Cynthia Liu, the founder and CEO of K-12 News Network, makes a case for requiring ethnic studies courses for high school graduation “in California and beyond.”
“Because in this day and age, we need frameworks to understand race, power, racism, gender, sexuality, class, and culture—and college is too late to BEGIN this instruction,” she wrote.
But an ethnic studies curriculum is not without controversy. Arizona has banned public schools from offering ethnic studies classes that are designed for a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity. That led to the dismantling of a popular Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson school district. (Recent updated research found that students who participated in that program were more likely to graduate from high school and pass standardized exams that they had previously failed.) A federal court recently upheld the ban.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.