California students must take ethnic studies—some in San Jose already do
Santa Teresa High School in the East Side Union High School District. File photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

California high school students will have a better understanding of the state’s history, diversity and culture under a new policy. Some Santa Clara County schools are ahead of the curve, offering ethnic studies as an elective.

Local elementary school districts—such as Oak Grove, Alum Rock and Mount Pleasant—already have ethnic studies as part of the curriculum. It’s also an elective at high schools in the San Jose Unified and East Side Union High School districts.

Alum Rock Union School District Superintendent Hilaria Bauer said the district’s ethnic studies curriculum promotes respect and understanding among races, builds citizenship, supports student success and teaches critical thinking and civic engagement.

“I believe that it is about time we allow all our students to feel welcome in our schools. By honoring their family background and culture, students feel a sense of belonging,” she told San José Spotlight. 

On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation mandating students take an ethnic studies class in order to graduate from public high schools, starting with the 2029-30 academic year. Schools must also provide ethnic studies as an elective by the 2025-26 school year.

The state’s vision for these classes is to focus on marginalized groups such as African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. Additional lessons will include Jews, Armenians and Sikhs. Ethnic studies is already required at California state universities, including San Jose State University, for students who started school this year.

SJUSD spokesperson Jennifer Maddox said the school board is committed to investing in ethnic studies and exposing students to a broader perspective. Its curriculum team is adding book selections for all grades featuring a wide diversity in perspective, culture and authors, she said.

“It’s beneficial for all students, but also gives a voice to student groups that traditionally have maybe not seen someone who looks like them and is represented,” Maddox told San José Spotlight, adding it’s especially valuable in places where students don’t have exposure to diverse cultures and people of different backgrounds.

When the Santa Clara County Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution in June 2020 announcing its commitment to ethnic studies curricula, some residents claimed the material was un-American. Local school districts were to be in favor of the new state requirement.

Teresa Marquez, associate superintendent of educational services for East Side Union High School District, said the district welcomes the state’s policy. In the 2018-19 school year, its board passed a resolution in support of making ethnic studies a graduation requirement.

Marquez said it’s important for students to be able to see themselves in instructional material and curriculum. Overfelt High School teaches ethnic studies to incoming ninth graders to help them learn more about themselves and their cultural identity, she said. 

“Including ethnic studies as a graduation requirement allows us to engage in conversation and empower students to see themselves through a wider lens,” she told San José Spotlight. 

Marquez said educators should be trained in how to incorporate cultural awareness in day-to-day teaching so they can promote civic engagement, collective empowerment and cultural understanding.

Santa Clara County Board of Education Trustee Peter Ortiz agrees that students need to see their communities and history reflected within the curriculum. Ortiz said traditional instruction hasn’t always been inclusive.

“Unfortunately, our education system has been Eurocentric,” Ortiz told San Jose Spotlight. “It’s important that our Latino, Asian and immigrant populations learn about their culture and their community’s contributions to this country.”

Seeing themselves and their cultures represented in their studies will help students gain self-confidence and a sense of belonging, he said.

“There is not one single American story,” Ortiz said. “This is a nation of immigrants. We all are Americans. America is not a skin color. It’s not a certain nation of origin. It’s all of us. We all have a space here.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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