An East San Jose public school district is set to explore bringing ethnic studies to its diverse students, a move lauded by some as being a lifeline for struggling students of color.
For Adan Perez, seeing himself in the curriculum during ethnic studies courses he took made the difference between dropping out of school and going to college. Today he’s a senior at UC Riverside.
“By implementing ethnic studies, we can start to build more bridges and a deeper sense of community within our students, especially at a younger age,” Perez said.
Perez was among more than 50 other parents, students, educators and community members who spoke in support of an ethnic studies resolution at the Alum Rock Union School District Board meeting this month. More than 300 people co-signed a letter of support by SOMOS Mayfair, a grassroots nonprofit organization based in East San Jose. Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco and Assemblymember Kansen Chu also wrote letters in support of the effort.
The resolution, championed by Trustee Corina Herrera-Loera and unanimously passed Thursday, will create a committee to explore the district’s option in implementing ethnic studies for all students in Alum Rock. Herrera-Loera hopes to start in October and launch a pilot program for the 2021-2022 school year.
ARUSD would become the third K-8 district in the city to create an Ethnic Studies program, following Oak Grove and Mount Pleasant elementary districts.
“My parents, who are Indigenous Mexican, always make sure that I was connected to the culture back in Mexico,” Herrera-Loera said in an interview. “I know what it did for me. … It’s important for us, and for our children, to know our entire truth.”
Herrera-Loera said she wanted to bring ethnic studies to the Alum Rock school district after learning that her daughter, who was in 4th grade at the time, still had to build a mission model as class assignment––an art-and-craft project that aims to teach nine-year-olds about the colonial period but often glosses over the brutal treatments of Native Americans.
“We are ahead of a lot of districts,” Herrera-Loera said, referring to the dual language programs at ARUSD. “But we still have a long way to go. We need to push ourselves beyond the limit.”
The call for ethnic studies in American schools has increased over the years. New research in 2016 revealed classes with such courses — which study the perspectives and roles of diverse ethnic and racial groups — boost student attendance and grades for students at risk of dropping out. Studies show ethnic studies help improve achievement gaps between white and nonwhite students.
Of more than 10,000 students at Alum Rock, 98% of them are nonwhite, according to data from the California Department of Education.
“Ethnic studies also allow students to form their identity and of those around them,” Board President Ernesto Bejarano told San José Spotlight. “We want our students to have a comprehensive understanding of the world.”
Both Bejarano and Herrera-Loera said it’s too early to project when the program will go districtwide. The plan calls for the initiative to be in the 2021-2024 Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), Herrera-Loera said. LCAP is a document outlining how state funds are used to support high-needs students in a school district.
Ethnic studies at the college level emerged from months-long protests led by the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State University in 1968 and UC Berkeley in 1969. In recent years, the push for ethnic studies curriculum in K-12 has become more prominent as California, along with Oregon and Vermont, committed to creating standardized materials in ethnic studies.
In Dec. 2019, Oak Grove School District in San Jose became the first K-8 district to adopt initiatives to create ethnic studies for its students. Oak Grove Trustee Jorge Pacheco Jr., who spearheaded the effort, commended Alum Rock for taking similar steps.
“I want to let you know how proud and excited I am to share the support with you all, and how necessary this is especially in a time as historical as this,” he said during the meeting last week.
“As we experience the current climate, our children need to understand what’s happening around them and why. It’s never too early to talk to your children about race,” said Victor Duarte-Vasquez of SOMOS Mayfair, adding that similar programs should be implemented across California. “The common feedback on this is, ‘it’s about time.’”
Duarte-Vasquez said the testimonies from parents, students, educators and activists created a “moment of collective healing.”
“It’s a moment of, ‘here’s the hope,” he added.
Jacqueline Gamboa, a Chicana/o and Ethnic Studies instructor at San Jose City College, said it’s never too early to start teaching kids about diversity and race.
“At what age should kids take ethnic studies? And I believe the time is now,” Gamboa said. She introduced her six-year-old Jade, who read a poem to the board.
“In Lak’ech, you are my other me.” said Jade, who was nervous but quickly found the poem flowed naturally. “If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself. If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself.”