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Desiree Adamos is advocating for the Sweetwater Union High School District to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Teenagers were instrumental in leading many of the racial justice protests across San Diego County over the summer. Now that school is resuming, they’re taking their grievances to their respective school boards and pushing for administrators to implement ethnic studies classes that reflect students’ diverse backgrounds as a graduation requirement.

This is the first year San Diego Unified, the largest district in the county, will require high school freshmen to take an ethnic studies course. Last spring, the district voluntarily opted to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement.

Student-led pushes at Sweetwater Union High School District and Poway Unified School District are also underway; both districts are considering a version of the requirement. Meanwhile, some charter schools like e3 Civic High are moving quickly to incorporate curriculum reflecting underrepresented communities in existing history and English classes.

Francisco Medina, an alum and teacher at Southwest, started teaching a year-long ethnic studies course to about 80 high school juniors and seniors this school year, after advocating for two years for a class that represents the histories of the diverse students at Southwest, where a majority of students are Latino. Medina said he talked to San Diego Unified teachers who teach the class for guidance on curriculum and instruction. Medina’s class focuses on analyzing certain social movements and historical figures in American history from diverse perspectives, human rights and human rights violations, creating change and learning about students’ impacts on the community. He said his two classes are filled to the brim, and he’s glad students are more interested in the class now following recent social unrest. He hopes the course will become a graduation requirement districtwide.

“I’ve always said the South Bay is colonized in a way in what we think. The diversity of the district plays a huge factor in wanting to bring this class to Southwest,” Medina said. “Back when we had history classes, I didn’t see myself in that history. We need kids to be able to see their perspective in history and that goes hand in hand with graduation rates.”

Metztli Carbajal and Desiree Adamos, two students in the district, are helping lead the latest push to make the course a graduation requirement districtwide.

“A lot of times our history courses are geared towards advertising American exceptionalism. We are a great country, but every great country has flaws and one of our flaws is we don’t teach to enhance knowledge. And knowledge is power,” said Carbajal, who’s enrolled in Medina’s new course.

She and Adamos started an online campaign for Sweetwater teachers to show their support to have the course become a graduation requirement at every school in the district.

California high schools are not required to make ethnic studies courses a graduation requirement, but the state Department of Education recently released a revised set of recommendations for schools that already have or are considering creating a course. It recommends ethnic studies curriculum focus on four core disciplines: African American studies, Chicano and Latino studies, Asian American and Pacific Islander studies, and Native American and Indigenous studies. It also encourages educators to acknowledge California’s diversity and make connections to the experiences of all students, organizing around four themes: identity, history and movement, systems of power and social movements and equity.

A bill currently under consideration in the Legislature, written by Assemblyman José Medina, would require all California students to take at least a one-semester ethnic studies course to graduate from high school beginning in 2025. That bill will be heard in a Senate committee on Thursday. Kelly Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Medina, said they feel confident the bill will pass. Newsom signed a bill this week requiring all California State University undergraduate students to take an ethnic studies course.

Adamos, a student board representative for the district, goes to Olympian High School in Chula Vista and is working with Carbajal to educate students and teachers about the course and push the Sweetwater board of trustees to make it a graduation requirement. Only a few high schools across the district currently offer such a course.

Adamos said establishing the course as a requirement will take buy-in from the three major stakeholders: students, teachers and principals. She said student interest is climbing as a result of the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and believes it’s important for students to recognize how the classroom can play a role in creating systemic change.

Both students told Voice of San Diego that requiring the course could allow students to begin to understand how marginalized groups have been impacted and oppressed – information that could create a foundation for understanding current events as they play out.

“By recognizing these struggles, students will be able to cultivate a sense of ethnic pride, educators will be able to create a dynamic, inspiring, and empowering learning environment, and the history of people of color will be rightfully told through a narrative that does not center on their oppression,” Adamos wrote in an online petition.

The district’s board of trustees supports the effort and the district’s curriculum and instruction division is developing a plan to implement it, said Manny Rubio, a spokesman for the district. Medina said a lot of teachers he’s talked to from other schools in the district feel like they don’t have the training to teach an ethnic studies course, but said the only way all students in the district are going to benefit is to make the class a graduation requirement.

Adamos is plowing ahead: She’s talking to ethnic studies professors from UC San Diego about professional development for staff members, trying to drum up student interest and reaching out to principals. She suggested principals make room for the course by taking away a ninth-grade history course requirement or another elective or making it a required elective course like Oakland Unified School District did in 2015. That district requires all high schools to offer ethnic studies classes as a required ninth grade elective.

Meanwhile, Poway Unified students behind the Instagram page @BlackinPUSD and others in the community have for months advocated for broader and more diverse curriculum. Those students, like many across the region, are also pushing for anti-racist policies at the district after hearing from numerous Poway Unified community members who experienced racism at their schools.

Poway Unified anticipates bringing forward two new courses – ethnic studies and ethnic literature – to the school board for review, said Christine Paik, a spokeswoman for the district. Paik said officials are still researching course descriptions, but that the overall purpose of both courses will be to learn about the perspectives of minority groups while allowing students from all backgrounds to better understand and appreciate how race, culture, ethnicity and identity contribute to their experiences.

“By studying the histories of race, ethnicity, nationality, and culture, students will develop respect and empathy for individuals and groups of people locally, nationally, and globally to build self-awareness, empathy, and foster active social engagement,” Paik wrote in an email. The Poway Unified school board passed a resolution that would introduce racially and culturally diverse curriculum, implement anti-bias training for staff and hire a more racially diverse staff.

How One Charter School Is Moving Forward

School officials at e3 Civic High are now training teachers for new curriculum in history and English classes after students from the school’s associated student body pushed for more inclusive representation following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

Cheryl James-Ward, president at e3 Civic High in downtown San Diego, said school officials and teachers are infusing racial diversity in English and history curriculums. Ward told Voice of San Diego that non-White students will likely be more motivated to attend class and engage if they see themselves and their ancestors reflected in the curriculum.

“We want all stories from each era of American history … What does that look like for African, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican Americans? We want to teach the real story behind those situations,” Ward said. “We believe if we include all stories, kids will be more engaged at and learn at a faster pace.” She said they’re really looking to include the student voice in what is taught in the school’s already existing core curriculum like history and English classes in the fall.

The push for more diverse curriculum in public K-12 schools is not unique to San Diego; it’s happening across the state and country.

State Superintendent Tony Thurmond acknowledged in a press conference last month that California’s schools have not always been a place where students can gain a full understanding of the contributions of people of color.

“At a time when people across the nation are calling for a fairer, more just society, we must empower and equip students and educators to have these courageous conversations in the classroom,” Thurmond said.

Kayla Jimenez

Kayla Jiminez was a staff writer for Voice of San Diego. She covered about communities, politics and regional issues in North County as well as school...

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