Support Grows for Ethnic Studies in SF High Schools

FIGHTING FOR ETHNIC STUDIES — Wendy Chen, 18, and Edwin Chen, 16, hold signs outside the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education’s meeting room. Both are students at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology. photo by Vivien Kim Thorp/Nichi Bei Weekly

On Jan. 12, dozens of teachers, students, parents, professors and community organizers gathered at the San Francisco Unified School District’s board of education meeting in support of a proposal that would put ethnic studies courses in the city’s ninth grade classrooms. The proposed pilot classes would be taught in five high schools during the 2010-2011 school year.

Many supporters, which included members of the group Campaign for Ethnic Studies, wore red clothing and held up handmade banners or printed signs saying “I Support Ethnic Studies.”

Edwin Chen, a sophomore at the Galileo Academy of Science and Technology, which does not currently have an ethnic studies class, came to the meeting with friends from the Chinatown Community Development Center’s youth group. “We’re here to support ethnic studies,” Chen, 16, said. “It’s important. We need it so we will know the background of our races and the races of other people.”

During the presentation, Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, a professor in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, told the board that ethnic studies is a way to reach disengaged students. “It actually puts their histories in their classes,” she said. “They get to learn about who they are.”

At the request of the school district’s curriculum committee, Tintiangco-Cubales, along with the school district’s Office of Learning Support and Equity and a group of high school history teachers, has been working to develop an ethnic studies curriculum for the past two years. The proposed curriculum covers topics such as racial identity, stereotypes, California history and the history of the ethnic studies movement. It also includes a service project at a local community or nonprofit organization.

Kyle Beckham, who has taught ethnic studies at Downtown High School, told the board that the course was a powerful tool to battle student alienation. The SFUSD should teach the class, he said, “to let kids know that their stories matter, and their people’s histories matter.”

A version of the proposed curriculum has already been offered as an elective at a few schools. During the 2008-2009 school year, students at Mission High School, Balboa High School and Abraham Lincoln High School were able to take the ethnic studies class. And this year, four teachers are teaching the class at Mission, Thurgood Marshall and George Washington high schools. The proposed pilot program would have the course taught at all of these schools for the coming school year.

The budget for the proposed pilot program is slated at $301,000 for the school year and would include two sections of the course at each of the five schools. In addition to teachers participating in special training sessions, the proposal includes a graduate student from the SFSU College of Ethnic Studies offering weekly classroom support for the teacher.

The College of Ethnic Studies, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in October 2009, is marking its involvement in the high school program as a continuation of the original mission of the ethnic studies movement. “Forty years ago we wanted it institutionalized in every college and every high school,” said Tintiangco-Cubales. “What we really want to see is [ethnic studies at] the secondary level, and we want to pioneer that in San Francisco.”

Eventually, supporters of the pilot program would like to see the elective offered to ninth graders in all of San Francisco’s high schools. Though getting the funding for even the pilot program could prove a challenge. Margot Goldstein, who teaches ethnic studies at John O’Connell High School, acknowledged the impending millions in budget cuts but said that she would love for the class to start next year. “We see [ethnic studies] as something that responds to student needs in reflecting history and culture,” she said. “It’s about equality and engagement in school education.”

At the close of the presentation, Superintendent Garcia told the board that there were still a lot of questions to ask, including where the class would fit in with newly passed requirements. “We will need some time to do some legwork,” he said. “We also need to get some answers in terms of how we fund something like this.

The petition for the proposed class is available at www.thepetitionsite.com/2/ethnic-studies-now. You can also follow the campaign on Twitter at @campaignforeths.

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