School board working to put ethnic studies at heart of district curriculum

Efforts to educate students on concepts such as structural racism, identity and social justice could soon gain traction in San...

Efforts to educate students on concepts such as structural racism, identity and social justice could soon gain traction in San Francisco as school board members work to expand the district’s current ethnic studies offerings.

A resolution introduced in June by school board members Alison Collins and Jenny Lam seeks to implement an ethnic studies framework district wide, in all subject areas and across all grade levels.

The resolution, called “Equity Studies to Implement Humanizing Learning Experiences for All Students,” would commit the San Francisco Unified School District to centering its curriculum around “decolonizing and anti-oppressive” pedagogy and a “humanizing” framework for teaching students based on three guiding principles: self-love and knowledge, solidarity between communities and self-determination.

“Our resolution expands and builds on the work of previous boards, made up of many resolutions regarding ethnic studies,” said Lam, who is Mayor London Breed’s education advisor and Chinese American. “It’s time for us to implement ethnic studies districtwide, and address values, cultural competence, and relevance to guide all curricular decisions.”

“What this resolution does is help bring to light for our students the whole notion of invisibility our students of color experience, and the stereotype of the model immigrant,” she said.

If approved, it would direct the district to establish an equity studies team, comprised of district officials and faculty from various departments — including math and special education — to evaluate current curriculum.

It would also establish mandatory professional development opportunities for educators around implicit bias and implementing ethnic studies across all subject areas. It would further establish an equity studies task force with representation from various community organizations to monitor and evaluate the ethnic studies team.

Collins said that efforts to articulate and expand an equity and social justice-based ethnic studies curriculum — which is currently offered as a series of elective courses at the ninth grade level only — have been underway in recent years, but lack the resources, “operational structures and mechanisms” for implementation.

“We have an ethnic studies department that supports ethnic studies classes — those are discrete classes kids can choose to take as an elective. There is no systemic way that we are addressing systemic bias — from teachers, bias that’s embedded in our textbooks or in curriculum,” said Collins, adding that she is seeing a”piecemeal, opt-in approach to living out” the district’s values.

The SFUSD’s efforts to infuse ethnic studies principles into its curriculum are taking place against the backdrop of state level efforts to create a model ethnic studies curriculum for grades K-12 from which California school districts may draw.

That effort, however, ran into trouble on Monday when a draft proposal for the new curriculum was rejected by the state’s Board of Education for falling “short” of its intended goals.

The State Board of Education in July 2018 approved guidelines for an ethnic studies curriculum that could be sampled by K-12 teachers throughout California. But the board this week scrapped the proposal, which was nearing the end of a public comment period on Friday, amid criticism from Jewish groups who deemed it “anti-semitic.”

In San Francisco, the current concept for the ninth grade ethnic studies curriculum was developed nearly a decade ago and implemented with a pilot program, which was originally designed to serve low-performing and frequently truant students, according to Artnelson Concordia, a veteran teacher who is helping to develop SFUSD’s curriculum.

Concordia said that SFUSD’s ethnic studies program is in many ways ahead of the curb.

“Several years into the program, Stanford conducted a study of our work and found that we actually made some observable gains around GPA, attendance, and accumulated credits toward graduation. This confirmed what we already knew anecdotally, that ethnic studies developed our students across the board,” he said.

Some four years ago, the district made efforts to open ethnic studies courses to high school freshman with the goal of “ultimately becoming a graduation requirement.”

“We are far from that,” said Concordia, though he said the district has made some strides.

The ninth grade program, which started with two ethnic studies sections offered at five high schools, has expanded to all of the district’s 16 high schools, with some 1,600 students enrolled.

Middle school teachers are also increasingly opting in to professional development that enables them to incorporate the district’s ethnic studies concepts into their own curriculum.

Among them is Marna Blanchard, who teaches 8th grade English at Francisco Middle School.

Two years ago, Blanchard says she was part of a cohort of middle school teachers who received training in ethnic studies. She then developed a project centered around genocide, jin which her students were prompted to choose a country in which genocide occured and produce a video project examing its implications for that country’s history and people.

“We want kids to be critical, analytical thinkers in their own learning and engage in their own process,” said Blanchard, adding that a lack of knowledge about ethnic studies and the resources to implement a curriculum around it are currently lacking in many classrooms.

“Not every teacher knows about this or what it means or how they can approach it,” said Blanchard, adding that the school board members’ resolution could help secure the resources and training to change that.

The resolution is expected to move to the San Francisco school board’s budget committee later this month and to the full board by September. Collins told the San Francisco Examiner on Wednesday that it’s implementation could come in phases and, if approved, could begin early next year.

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