A push for ethnic studies: Students and educators see benefits of classes in schools

Melisa Robles Olivar
Melisa Robles Olivar, Culture Reporter & Section Leader

During her multicultural class at Champlin Park High School, Amari Graham has learned about African-American history and has presented on southern United States culture in front of the entire class.

This class, called “Multicultural Perspectives,” is offered as an elective at her high school, but Graham thinks the course is one all students should take.

“I think it’s good for everyone to hear someone else’s perspective,” said Graham, a senior. “It kind of eliminates the stereotypes of people.”

Amid a national discussion about teaching ethnic studies in schools, some Minnesota students and educators see the benefits of these courses, they say.

“I feel like it’d be easier to learn it at school,” said Duni Awad, a senior at Ubah Medical Academy in Hopkins. “… [An ethnic studies course] exposes us to many things and gives us a better understanding of ourselves.”

A Stanford Graduate School of Education study published earlier this year found that high school ethnic studies classes improved attendance and academic performances of students who were at risk of dropping out. Students who took those classes also earned more credits to graduate, according to the study, which looked at ethnic studies courses in San Francisco high schools.

In September, California passed a bill that will establish an ethnic studies curriculum that schools in the state can teach to students as an elective. The statewide curriculum is expected to be completed by 2019. Each district will be encouraged to offer an ethnic studies course based on the curriculum.

Some local schools in California also have made ethnic studies a graduation requirement.

California is not the only state to be taking action on ethnic studies. Albuquerque Public Schools in New Mexico will offer ethnic studies courses as an elective in all of its 13 high schools starting in August 2017. On the other hand, an Arizona statute in 2011 banned a Mexican- American studies course in the state, citing that classes should not pro- mote the “overthrow of the United States government” and should not promote “resentment toward a race or class of people,” among other things. Opponents have argued  these classes are anti-American, are teaching divisiveness and may cut into opportunities for students to take other electives, according to a report on the Stanford study.

According to the Minnesota Common Course Catalogue, which includes courses for about half of the schools in the state, 23 ethnic studies courses were taught during the 2014-15 school year – the best available data from the Minnesota Department of Education.

St. Paul Public Schools has had American Indian History, Asian American History and African American History courses since at least 1995, according to the school district, but it remains up to each high school to decide which of these courses, if any, will be offered as electives. Currently, three SPPS schools offer African American History and one offers both Asian American History and American Indian History, according to the district.

Last year, Minneapolis Public Schools started offering a semester-long ethnic studies elective at all of its high schools.

Offering ethnic studies began as a way to give students the tools and skills to help them graduate and to improve the dropout rate, according to Kleber Ortiz-Sinchi, the social studies district program facilitator for Minneapolis Public Schools.

Ortiz-Sinchi believes ethnic studies courses are important for students.

“We need to have courses that allow our students to see them- selves in the history, in the curriculum, in the books, in the knowledge that is being created every day at school,” said Ortiz-Sinchi.

Because state standards don’t include ethnic studies courses, they are not currently required courses, according to Ortiz-Sinchi.

“The standards are not written to include the perspectives and lived experience of people of color,” Ortiz-Sinchi said, “and because the ‘test’ is about the standards, the system doesn’t see the need to include those perspectives because they are ‘not tested.’”

When asked about the process of making ethnic studies courses a requirement in schools, Ortiz-Sinchi said the process is “multi-fold.” It includes student advocacy, revising the curriculum and changing the standards to reflect “the histories of all Americans,” he said. It also includes universities training future teachers to teach ethnic studies courses, he said.

“It’s about creating change within the system,” he said.