In 2016, California signed into law a bill mandating that the state create a high school ethnic studies model curriculum. The goal: Increase understanding and respect among students by teaching a history that focuses on the struggles and cultures of four overlooked groups. The groups include Black people, Latinos, Asians, and Indigenous Americans. After several revisions, the Board of Education unanimously adopted a model curriculum this month, making it the nation’s first of its kind.
Since the curriculum is a model and not a requirement, school districts can tailor it to their own student bodies or decide not to teach it at all.
Unsatisfied with where the model curriculum was at, Newsom vetoed a bill last year that would make it a requirement statewide. But the sponsor, Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, has reintroduced it this year, and with the state board’s stamp of approval, Newsom may be more inclined to sign it.
“I'm really glad that the state is pushing for all schools to teach ethnic studies. People have been working towards this for decades. It's a huge step,” says Aviva Alvarez-Zakson, who teaches ethnic studies to ninth graders at Hamilton High School.
When taught well, she says ethnic studies helps students learn the vocabulary to articulate who they are and their experiences, the different forms of oppression they observe in the world, how to actively combat that oppression, and how to foster resilience within themselves.
More and more school districts have already implemented ethnic studies programs, and college educators are developing programs to train the next generation of ethnic studies teachers.
“We can have these kinds of state level mandates. But then we thought,
‘Who's going to teach these courses?’” says Lisa Park, a professor and chair of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara.
Through UCSB's new ÉXITO program, which Park co-directs, students can graduate with a bachelor’s degree in an ethnic studies, earn a master’s degree and a teaching credential in five years. Park is also collaborating with the Santa Barbara Unified School District to train current high school teachers on how to teach the material.
Alvarez-Zakson has advice for schools beginning to implement or bolster their ethnic studies program: Make sure a passionate and excited teacher receives this course material, and create a better version of the model curriculum for your own students.
She also thinks people of color should be prioritized when schools decide who teaches these ethnic studies courses.
“When students see themselves reflected in their teachers, it has a measurable effect on success for those students,” she says. “[But] it's not a requirement. I actually think it's good that people who are white take interest in this subject and believe that this subject is important.”
The first six students in UCSB’s ÉXITO program start classes in May. Park plans to quickly expand the program and the diversity of its students with the help of a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Title V program.