Santa Rosa schools weighing ethnic studies program

A bid to include some sort of ethnic studies courses in Santa Rosa schools, either as a requirement or an elective, is gaining momentum.|

A push to incorporate ethnic studies into Santa Rosa City Schools’ curriculum either as an elective or a graduation requirement is gaining momentum.

The North Bay Organizing Project has been advocating for the proposal since March, conferring with school board members and teachers about the idea and discussing a model curriculum.

“We’ve been trying to understand what we could get through, or what people are wanting, because there seems to be different approaches,” said Karym Sanchez, of Santa Rosa, youth organizer with the coalition of church, labor and community organizations.

The effort got an official stamp of support in late November, when a committee of school board members, district administrators and teachers came out of a meeting saying they were open to exploring options for a pilot program next year.

“There’s a definite desire, including the superintendent and the board members who were there, and the teachers, that, yes, we need to look at it,” said school board Vice President Larry Haenel, who was at the Nov. 17 meeting.

No curriculum is defined, and it is far from being approved, but ethnic studies courses typically have emphasized literature and historical narratives that are not centered on white protagonists. Rather, the texts focus on the lives of minority groups such as Latinos or African-Americans and their historical roles.

“We first need to define what it is and then explore where it is being taught in the curriculum,” Haenel said.

The conversation covered issues of how much time it would take to implement such a plan and what form it would take at first, said Genevieve Lilligren, a Santa Rosa Middle School teacher who is chairwoman of the committee.

Also discussed, she said, was how existing efforts to expand the curriculum beyond a Eurocentric perspective in literature and history could be preserved, while also taking further steps.

“I personally would like to see our history textbooks and even some of the literature that we have available to us reflect a more diverse population, that it be divided more appropriately,” Lilligren said.

With Superintendent Socorro Shiels’ support, a committee is being formed to examine the questions that were raised, especially what a pilot program might look like.

Amanda Martinez-Morrison, a professor of Chicano and Latino studies at Sonoma State University and North Bay Organizing Project member, is active in the efforts to outline a potential curriculum.

She said: “We would like to see it as a graduation requirement for high-schoolers, as opposed to just an elective that students can choose to take or not, because we believe that it’s important that students learn these kinds of subjects that are not taught and codified in textbooks.”

The ease, so far, with which the proposal has progressed has surprised her, she said.

“We thought it would be more of a fight, and it does still remain to be seen when the rubber hits the road, what will happen,” she said.

According to Ethnic Studies Now, a coalition of educators and civil rights groups advocating for ethnic studies programs, eight school districts throughout the state have made ethnic studies a graduation requirement, while 10 have made it an elective. The districts include the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Sacramento City district.

Those programs have been ?designed with the students in those districts in mind, whether Pakistani, African-American or Latino, said Jose Lara, a Los Angeles social studies teacher and coordinator for Ethnic Studies Now.

“There’s a demographic imperative. You have to teach the kids in front of you,” he said. “If the kids in front of you are Latino, you have to teach the history of Latinos in the United States.”

In the Santa Rosa secondary schools, 45 percent of students are Latino.

Lara said what objections there have been around the state have revolved around “logistical questions.”

“The resistance has really been in how to implement it, how to train the teachers, how to fully fund it. How does it fit in to the calendar, who’s going to teach it, how many courses will there be? What does it replace if you’re not adding new teachers or more credits required to graduate?” he said.

For Karym Sanchez, who started taking Chicano studies courses at Santa Rosa Junior College after being expelled from high school, the issue strikes close to his heart.

“It definitely provided me the tools for critical thinking when I was conditioned to think that I was going to be a landscaper or be in trouble with the law,” he said. “This allowed me to think beyond that, to think about what it means to be Latino in Sonoma County.”

The group’s discussions also have been colored by the 2013 shooting by a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy of Andy Lopez, 13, Sanchez said..

“In the aftermath, this community has been wanting to be able to look at how do we keep kids in schools, how do we keep them engaged, especially young Latinos. They’re not reflected in the curriculum,” he said.

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