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It may be Black History Month, but SF students engage in Ethnic Studies classes year-round

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African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglas (who is, in fact, deceased) is one of the many people San Francisco students are learning about all year long in the school district’s Ethnic Studies classes. (Courtesy photo)

We are just a few days into Black History Month. Our students, like many across America, are learning about the profound contributions of African Americans, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Zora Neale Hurston, Althea Gibson and Frederick Douglass (who was, as we are hearing more and more, amazing).

At the San Francisco Unified School District, we want to include the history and current experiences of all people throughout the curriculum, all year long.

What you may not know is that, as students enter middle and high school, we provide even more and deeper opportunities for them to study race and ethnicity and their role in their lives and American society.

An eye-opening social studies class

Ethnic Studies classes are now offered in all our high schools.

This course is rooted in the long-standing tradition and hard work of Bay Area educators to develop and teach a more rich historical narrative that centers on the perspectives of historically marginalized communities, including African Americans.

The class gives high school students an introduction to the experiences of communities that are under-represented in textbooks. They examine race, ethnicity, nationality and culture in the United States. The course also equips our students with a critical lens to see the world — and their place in it — by understanding systems and power at the root of American society.

In this class, students discover how, throughout history, marginalized groups have found their own power and used it for the benefit of not only themselves, but also for their community.

And over the course of history, their work has benefited our society at large.

Bonus for our students

Here’s something we didn’t quite expect when we started these classes: Of the students who take the class who are at risk of dropping out, Ethnic Studies classes have boosted school attendance and academic performance.

Not only did students make gains in attendance and grades, they also increased the number of credits they earned to graduate.

Stanford scholars recently completed a study of Ethnic Studies in the SFUSD showing these promising results, and now districts throughout the state and nation are adding Ethnic Studies classes to their high school course menu.

During a month when schools across the country focus on African Americans’ contributions to our nation, we take special pride in Ethnic Studies as one of many ways we celebrate black history all year long.

Myong Leigh is interim superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District.

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