As Santa Clara County school districts ramp up high school ethnic studies classes, educators said more training is sorely needed at the local level to ensure quality courses on diversity are being provided.
California became the first state in the nation in 2021 to require high schoolers to take ethnic studies in order to graduate. Statewide districts are expected to have courses in place by the 2025-26 school year, and a bill introduced in February, AB 1255, would require California to create an ethnic studies teaching credential. But teachers said they’re already contending with a workforce sparsely equipped to offer the subject, and a credential shouldn’t be the key focus.
Ethnic studies examines the histories of racial-ethnic groups while also connecting lessons back to current-day experiences. The goal, educators said, is to inspire students to take what they are learning beyond the classroom and into their communities to address inequalities.
San Jose Unified School District Associate Superintendent of Instruction Jodi Lax said AB 1255’s push for an ethnic studies credential could bog down districts that are already making strides in this area. Data at the district’s school board meeting last week revealed most schools in San Jose Unified enroll hundreds of students in ethnic studies. The district already offers ethnic studies courses for freshmen and sophomores and is in the process of designing more for future grades. It also offers a monthly training for teachers to collaborate on best practices to teach the subject.
“Having the right teacher for this class isn’t about the credential. It’s about the mindset and the willingness to really think about the instruction from different viewpoints,” Lax said. “We need to encourage the state to put less requirements in place and really just think about quality, and not necessarily rules or tests.”
UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project academic coordinator Ricky Aguirre, a former Campbell Union High School District ethnic studies teacher, said creating curriculum has mostly been done by local educators. He said the shortage of ethnic studies educators in local districts is driven by the subject’s uniqueness.
“It is a different way of teaching a course. It’s not about content,” Aguirre told San José Spotlight. “You want to teach to your community and you want your students to be reflected in that, and so it has to be created by the teacher.”
Some Santa Clara County school districts, including Alum Rock Union, Oak Grove and Mount Pleasant Elementary districts, have long been ahead of the curve in offering ethnic studies to elementary children. While many have lauded the subject as critical for understanding diversity, implementing the course has also been a heavily politicized topic nationwide.
Michael Espinoza, an English teacher at Campbell Union High School District, said he worked to create a curriculum for his literature and ethnic studies course after attending a professional development event years ago. A state credential would be a long-term solution to guarantee qualified educators, but districts should also foster collaboration between teachers to form classes, he added. Espinoza is part of an ethnic studies coalition of teachers at the district.
“There’s a lot of districts around here that are doing their own thing… That is something that is exciting on one level, but then also, it could lead to a lot of ambiguity,” Espinoza told San José Spotlight. “I do think that teachers who want to teach it need to have some kind of background in order to be able to teach it well.”
San Jose Unified School District board member Teresa Castellanos said implementing ethnic studies goes beyond staffing and needs to focus on educational equity. San Jose High has one section of ninth grade ethnic studies with 30 students enrolled compared to other schools, like Leland High, which has 13 sections and 359 students enrolled. Castellanos said that disparity needs attention, especially as many San Jose High students are from communities of color. State data shows Latino students made up more than 85% of the school’s 2021-22 population.
“We are not giving complete and full access at San Jose High with the students that are struggling,” Castellanos said. “Once you get to know a little bit of who you are… the way that you respond to school is different because you become an owner of your education.”
Castellanos said the district should look at expanding ethnic studies options, such as allowing students to take community college ethnic studies courses for high school credit. The move could increase access to higher education for students of color, she added.
Aguirre said creating better structure for teachers in ethnic studies means students benefit more in the end. He said teaching ethnic studies gave his students an opportunity to process what was happening in their own communities, and be more engaged in their lessons overall.
“There’s some people who are really like, ‘Hey, we need to do this.’ And then there’s the other people who want to do it, but need some hand holding,” Aguirre told San José Spotlight. “How do we get them all to the point where they feel confident to teach ethics studies? I think that’s kind of the million dollar question.”
Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.
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