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‘Students can develop more empathy’: Santa Rosa school board considers ethnic studies

To provide more diverse perspectives that better reflect the student body, the Santa Rosa school district is considering rolling out ethnic studies at its campuses.

“Ethnic studies deserves to be embedded in all courses starting from pre-K to graduation,” Superintendent Diann Kitamura said during a Nov. 14 school board meeting.

School board members at the meeting appeared to support implementing in some form ethnic studies, which has been gaining traction across California. Nine districts in the state have made ethnic studies a graduation requirement since 2014.

For Sonoma County’s largest district with 16,000 students, it’s not a matter of if, but when and how to offer ethnic studies, which teaches students about race and minority perspectives underrepresented in textbooks.

“It’s really imperative that we do make this a requirement of Santa Rosa City Schools to make sure that every student has exposure to ethnic studies as part of their coursework from the beginning and through graduation,” said Jenni Klose, board president. ”We need to figure out, definitely, how to make sure teachers are on board and trained and supported and part of developing that implementation of any kind of policy.”

Three years ago, the district formed an ethnic studies exploratory committee consisting of administrators, teachers and educators at Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College. The committee researched ethnic studies curricula implemented at other districts, including Los Angeles and San Francisco Unified.

The group, which urged the Santa Rosa district to offer the curricula, also attended conferences on ethnic studies and social justice.

“By learning about each other and each other’s backgrounds, students can develop more empathy. When multiple identities are brought into the classroom, students may create a stronger communities,” said Elizabeth Evans, the district’s teaching and learning coordinator and a committee member. “This increased sense of community and understanding means safer schools and more successful students.”

Students and educators have shown an increased interest in ethnic studies in the last six months, and that might be in part because of the national political climate, Evans said.

“Honestly, the way our country has been operating for the last couple of years makes it even more imperative, from my view,” said Bill Carle, an outgoing Santa Rosa school board member.

As Santa Rosa school board members discussed they issue, they leaned towards having ethnic studies embedded into the curriculum instead of adding an additional required or elective class.

“I think that it does ethnic studies a disservice and it does people of color a disservice to have it as a standalone class,” Kitamura said.

But it’s too early to say how much it could cost the district to implement ethnic studies.

In August, California legislators passed a bill that would have provided an incentive for school districts to require ethnic studies to graduate. However, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it in September.

“While I recognize the value of these courses, I am reluctant to encourage yet another graduation requirement, especially when students are already overburdened by multiple tests and endless hours of homework,” Brown had said in a statement. Two years earlier, he had signed a bill to create the first statewide model curriculum on ethnic studies by 2020.

Other states, such as Indiana and Oregon, have passed legislation in recent years requiring ethnic studies in schools, although some critics have argued learning about race relations is divisive.

Gabriel Albavera, principal at Santa Rosa’s Elsie Allen High School, sits on the ethnic studies committee. At the school board meeting earlier this month, he shared a statement from a California State University, Monterey Bay ethnic studies professor on why it’s necessary.

“As students of color proceed through the school system, research finds that the overwhelming dominance of Euro-American perspectives leads many students to disengage from academic learning. Ethnic studies curricula exist in part because students of color have demanded an education that is relevant, meaningful and affirming of their identities,” he said, reading professor Christine Sleeter’s statement.

Will Lyon, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, said the union is in favor of ethnic studies, but asked the board to make sure it doesn’t impact elective classes.

Ethnic studies is expected to come back to the board in the future for further discussion and possible action, although district officials didn’t provide a timeline.

“As quickly as we can and as slowly as we must,” Klose said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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