A new requirement in the Los Angeles Unified school district mandates that students take ethnic studies classes in an effort to increase cultural understanding.
Created by Board of Education members Bennett Kayser, George McKenna and Steve Zimmer, the initiative aims to close the academic gap between minority students and their white and Asian peers. They hope to accomplish this through a push for achievement by having students explore different perspectives concerning history, literature and social justice. More than 90 languages are spoken by the students within the district.
A task force of teachers, parents, students, district officials, and education experts will meet to determine how much of the curriculum will be developed, and how much will come from similar programs in other districts, according to Board of Education member Steve Zimmer.
While ethnic studies courses have been provided by the district since the 1990s, it was left up to each school to decide whether or not to offer them. Most decided not to. Now, the courses will be a requirement to graduate from all high schools in the district.
Although the course is required, teachers will be free to create their own curriculum that coincides with the individual needs and interests of their students. “In East L.A., it might be Chicano history. In Koreatown, it might be Asian American courses,” said Jose Lara, a leading advocate of the move and a social studies teacher at Santee Education Complex.
By the 2017-2018 school year, every high school in the district must offer at least one ethnic studies course. Course completion is set to become a graduation requirement for the 2018-2019 school year.
The initiative largely came from the efforts of students, who wrote letters, started petitions that gained thousands of signatures and met with educators and elected officials to gain their support.
“This is a reform that came from the bottom up,” Lara said. “It’s students demanding more from their education.”
Efforts for diversity courses are increasing in higher education as well. Many of the University of California campuses as well as a variety of other colleges in the state require undergraduates to complete a course on ethnic, cultural, religious or gender diversity.
Similar measures in other districts have not seen as great a success this year. California lawmakers pushed to create a statewide ethnic studies curriculum, but were turned down due to lack of funding.
The failures are not limited to California. A movement that would have required Mexican American courses to be taught in Texas recently failed. In addition, educators in Tucson, Arizona are hard at work rebuilding a high school ethnic studies course after the state put an end to a popular Mexican American studies program.
However, in San Francisco, the Board of Education will be voting this week on whether or not to expand a program in the district that currently offers ethnic students courses at five high schools. If approved, the courses would be offered at all 19 district high schools, perhaps becoming a graduation requirement within five years.