All APS high schools to offer ethnic studies

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Public Schools will roll out ethnic studies courses at all 13 of its high schools in August 2017, joining a nationwide movement to make education more inclusive for minority students.

The planning process began last week with a three-day workshop that brought about 40 teachers and community members together to brainstorm curriculum possibilities.

Attendees discussed concepts like unconscious bias, as well as books and movies that present Hispanic, African-American, Native American and Asian culture, throwing out titles like “The Karma of Brown Folks,” “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and “Reservation Blues.” One suggestion even featured a little-known Scandinavian minority. The course will be designed to cover a broad array of racial and ethnic groups.

Currently, Albuquerque, Del Norte and Highland are the only high schools with courses focused on minority experiences – Chicano studies and Mexican-American literature at Albuquerque and Highland; Native American studies at Del Norte.

Under the new plan, every high school will offer ethnic studies as an elective option for juniors and seniors. Most of the classes will be taught by social studies or English teachers, though the curriculum could also be incorporated into art or drama.

Travis McKenzie, a member of the local community activism group Families United for Education, said the planning process has been powerful.

“Ethnic studies for me represents a catalyst for bringing voices that aren’t traditionally heard in our mainstream education,” he said. “It is transformative. It is a safe space to be able to express who you are and question your own identity and the identity that is given to you.”

McKenzie and a few dozen other FUE members began a campaign for districtwide ethnic studies classes in December during public forum at two Board of Education meetings.

Katarina Sandoval, APS’ chief academic officer and the workshop organizer, said “the timing was right” for the district to embrace ethnic studies because it aligns with the priorities in a new five-year academic master plan drafted this spring.

One of the goals laid out in the plan is “developing the whole child,” which translates to an emphasis on physical and mental health along with traditional reading, writing and arithmetic. Another, “high-performing community responsive schools,” reflects a desire to make education accessible to all groups.

The new classes are expected to cost roughly $30,000, she said, which includes training, books and materials.

Sandoval will concentrate on those goals in a newly created administrative position, associate superintendent for equity and access, that she will step into this summer.

She called the planned ethnic studies classes “a nice intersection of curriculum and equity” with clear benefits, particularly for minority students.

“They have access to a curriculum where they learn about their own histories, they learn more about their own language and culture, and see themselves reflected in literature they are reading,” she said. “It really engages them in a way that traditional curriculum has not been able to for certain students.”

APS is struggling with a graduation rate below 62 percent, one of the lowest in the nation.

Sandoval had not heard of any other New Mexico districts with broad ethnic studies program. A spokeswoman for Rio Rancho Public Schools confirmed that the district’s two high school do not offer it.

‘Transformative’ force

A recent study from the Stanford Graduate School of Education gives ammunition to the view that ethnic studies is a “transformative” force.

The data, published in January 2016, found that at-risk students in a San Francisco Unified School District ethnic studies pilot program made significant strides compared to a control group with similar makeup.

“What’s so unique about this program is the degree to which it helped the students who took it,” said Emily Penner, co-author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at the GSE, in a Stanford news release.

“Schools have tried a number of approaches to support struggling students, and few have been this effective. It’s a novel approach that suggests that making school relevant and engaging to struggling students can really pay off.”

Penner and Stanford GSE professor Thomas S. Dee gathered data from 1,405 ninth-graders who attended three San Francisco high schools from 2010 to 2014 and found that students who took ethnic studies had better GPAs and school attendance, as well as larger class loads.

Robert Frausto, the Chicano studies teacher at Highland High in Albuquerque, said he has seen similar effects among his students during the two years the course has been offered.

“Their response is, ‘It is good to hear this – I am more committed to stay in school and get my education,’ ” he said.

APS board president Dave Peercy also supports classes that reflect more diverse voices.

“We have a lot of interesting cultures here that I think really need to be part of our history,” he said. “That is the interesting part of history.”

The seven board members have backed ethnic studies during a number of public meetings this year, though they do not vote on curriculum issues.

APS administration has also been supportive as the ethnic studies plan has been formalized over the last few months, according to Tony Padilla, an FUE member and social studies teacher at New Futures Alternative High School.

“I know all of Families United appreciates the willingness APS has shown to be very open to our input and incorporate that,” he said.

Not all on board

In other communities, ethnic studies has been a tougher sell.

Arizona statute bans classes that “promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity rather than the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

The regulations have pitted state officials against Tucson Unified School District students and teachers who are fighting to reinstate a Mexican-American studies program.

The issue has gone to federal court, with the plaintiffs arguing that “the law itself was unconstitutional, overly broad and vague,” according to the Arizona Daily Star.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Stanford researchers Dee and Penner report that “a number of California school districts – including Los Angeles, Pico Rivera and Oakland – require ethnic studies or are moving in that direction.”

San Francisco also voted to expand ethnic studies to its 19 high schools as an elective credit after the study’s positive result.

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