Studying identity, culture in school: Robbinsdale Armstrong, Cooper debut ethnic studies classes

Robbinsdale Armstrong and Cooper high schools are debuting a new ethnic studies class this school year.

School officials say students have wanted the course to learn more about their own cultural backgrounds and about their diverse peers. The move comes as schools in Minnesota and across the nation are adding ethnic studies courses, with some schools debating whether to make the class a graduation requirement.

The class is a year-long exploration of identity, culture and the experiences of American-Indian, Latinx-American, African-American, Asian-American, Arab-American and Pacific Islander-American people. Students learn about icons who influenced history, such as James Baldwin.

Bryan Deiman, a social studies teacher, teaches ethnic studies for both high schools. He used to teach middle school social studies and has had a longstanding interest in American studies.

“It’s been great to focus on people who have been historically marginalized,” Deiman said.

At Armstrong, the class has three periods with a total of nearly 100 students.

Seione Kimbrough, a senior
 at Armstrong, said that until the ethnic studies class, the school did not always teach from a multicultural perspective.

Robbinsdale Armstrong added an ethnic studies class this year. Robbinsdale Cooper has also added the class.

If diverse views were presented in class, only “one day’s worth
of knowledge [was] shared,” Kimbrough said. She said she values schools teaching multicultural ideas and perspectives because it reflects the school’s student body.

Daysha Hoskin, a senior at Armstrong, said she appreciates the depth of the discussions in the ethnic studies class.

“Ethnic studies has so much authenticity to it,” Hoskin said. “… I enjoy it a lot.”

A recent Stanford Graduate School of Education study of San Francisco high schools found that ethnic studies classes improved attendance and academic performances of students who were at risk of dropping out. Students also earned more credits to graduate, according to the study.

Some schools in California and Oregon have required ethnic studies courses. Minneapolis and St. Paul schools offer the courses as electives.

Ariana Crosby is an equity specialist at Robbinsdale Armstrong. Crosby helps students with a number of things, from talking to students about cultural or racial issues in class, to talking to students about how their day is going. She also serves as a support system for students and their families.

“It can really benefit everyone,” Crosby said of the new course.
“It’s cool that we have a class that focuses on just kind of the things that our students have been saying throughout the years and what they want to learn more about.”

In Robbinsdale, a group of students brought the idea to the school board after participating in a District 281-sponsored program called the Civil Rights Research Experience (CRRE), according to Crosby.

CRRE is an extracurricular program that helps students learn about civil rights and their ethnic history, and in recent years, the program has also expanded to be college-focused. Students from CRRE wondered why a course with in-depth multiculturalism wasn’t provided in their school, according to Deiman. They spoke to the school board in 2015, and the class was launched this school year.

“Ethnic studies is a really, really productive class,” Hoskin said. “We have so much more open-minded discussions and topics.”