For the first time this fall, students at Santa Ana Unified School District high schools will have the option of taking a class in which they can explore their own ethnic identities.
The ethnic studies class, which was unanimously approved by the district's board of trustees in March, will be part of the social studies curriculum.
In addition to studying their own ethnicities, students taking the yearlong class will learn about stereotypes, social movements and race-based systems of oppression.
It is, say educators and officials, an important milestone; especially for a district that is 95 percent Latino.
"It doesn't matter who you are culturally or ethnically, we should all be exposed to [ethnic studies]," said Board President John Palacio. "The more we learn from each other, the better we will understand and appreciate each other, and what everyone brings to America."
Advocates say ethnic studies courses, which are becoming increasingly popular in California, promote cultural understanding and provide a more inclusive view on American history. They are also seen as crucial to closing academic achievement gap between Black and Latino students and their White and Asian peers.
In Santa Ana Unified, more than 90 percent of students are low income and over 60 percent are English language learners.
Palacio said the way U.S. History is traditionally taught doesn't do enough to highlight the achievements and contributions of leaders from ethnic minority communities. That historical knowledge is important in how students cultivate a sense of personal identity, he added.
"How many stories of Vietnamese or Hispanic [leaders] are we exposed to? That's the beauty of ethnic studies," Palacio said. "It gives you that sense of hope and wanting to be someone that was very significant."
The courses, however, aren't universally accepted. They were the subject of a national debate in 2010, when in reaction to a Mexican American studies program in the Tuscon Unified School District, Arizona state legislators passed a law banning such classes from public schools.
The lawmakers argued that ethnic studies courses promote "resentment" of other racial groups, advocating ethnic solidarity rather than the treatment of people as individuals.
The ban was apart of a wave of anti-illegal immigrant sentiment sweeping Arizona that year, where just a month earlier legislators passed SB 1070, one of the broadest and toughest anti-immigration bills in the nation.
Although the ban on ethnic studies was largely upheld by a federal judge in 2013, a court order earlier this year requires the Tuscon school district to bring back Mexican American studies, prompting disagreements between the state superintendent and school district over how the classes will be taught.
In California, however, the classes have been taught without much controversy.
The San Francisco Unified School District has offered ethnic studies courses at some of its high schools since 2008. In 2014, the district expanded the program to all of its high schools.
In December, the Los Angeles Unified School District's board voted 6-1 to approve a measure making ethnic studies courses a high school graduation requirement by 2019.
Garden Grove Unified School District currently offers elective courses in Mexican American and Vietnamese American history, as well as Mexican American literature.
A bill in the state Assembly, proposed earlier this year by Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas), would require public high schools to offer ethnic studies as an elective and create a statewide curriculum standard.
"An Ethnic Studies curriculum will help close the achievement gap by reducing student truancy, increasing student enrollment, reduce drop-out rates, and better prepare Californian youth to be college prepared and career ready," said Michelle Reyes, a spokeswoman for Alejo's office.
Meanwhile in Santa Ana, Superintendent Rick Miller defended the classes against critics, saying they won't be replacing traditional U.S. history courses.
"It's an elective class, students can choose to take it or not to take it," said Miller. "If we [required it], that's a different question."
Miller said teaching ethnic studies should not be a partisan issue, but a matter of providing multiple perspectives on American history.
At a recent celebration of the anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, a 1954 landmark Supreme Court case that resulted in the desegregation of American public schools, Miller said he was dismayed that many students had not heard of Mendez vs. Westminster, a 1947 federal court case.
In that ruling, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of five Mexican-American fathers who sued the Westminster School District, claiming that their children and other Mexican Americans were unconstitutionally forced to attend separate schools in four Orange County school districts.
Miller pointed to the Mendez ruling as a crucial part of both Orange County and Latino history.
"If we all have a broader view of history, that helps everybody. And not to understand Mendez versus Westminster -- if you're not aware of that, you're kind of missing some stuff," Miller said.
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