Santa Ana Unified School District Creates Ethnic Studies Requirement in Wake of George Floyd Protests

Courtesy of Benjamin Vazquez

Local community organizer, Maria Zacarias, helps put finishing touches on the student drawn mural at Valley High School during the 2019 school year. This mural was highly controversial leaving students to gather petitions to keep the mural displayed.

Come the 2022-23 academic school year, incoming high school students in Santa Ana will have to complete an ethnic studies course before they become eligible to graduate.

The Santa Ana Unified School District Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday night to adopt a resolution creating a new graduation requirement that will mandate students to finish a one-year course of ethnic studies before receiving their diploma. The requirement is something for which members of the community have voiced support.

About 19 educators, parents and school district alumni called into the meeting urging board members to adopt the graduation requirement arguing that such a condition will improve attendance, graduation rates, develop critical thinking skills and teach students about racial inequalities that exist in Orange County today and its history.

“The racism and systemic oppression that permeates all of our institutions are what have brought us to today’s reality,” an educator and parent in the school district said at Tuesday’s meeting.

“The overwhelming dominance of the Euro-American lens leads many students to disengage from academic learning, as well as socially isolating them,” she said.

The creation of an ethnic studies requirement comes after protests in Orange County against police brutality have extended into their second week amid global uproar over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, a black man.

Santa Ana Unified is the first school district in the county to create such a requirement following police brutality protests in area cities. In 2015, the district’s board first voted to introduce ethnic studies to the curriculum.

Ethnic studies courses teach students about the history of their own ethnicities, stereotypes, social movements and race-based systems of oppression.

While the district board supported the requirement, board member John Palacio expressed and emphasized concern for the cost the added condition will have on the district as the board prepares to adopt next year’s budget after the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Palacio said such a requirement will mean hiring a lot more teachers.

“You have to have a discussion in terms of a budget cost because when you have a mandated class in terms of a graduation requirement you’re not talking about one or two teachers,” Palacio said. “You have to hire enough staff to ensure that everyone receives access to the curriculum, otherwise they can’t graduate.”

The requirement will apply to ninth graders entering high school in the 2022-23 academic school year.

District Superintendent Jerry Almendarez will be responsible for creating a task force made up of students, administrators, parents, and teachers to create a plan on how the requirement will be implemented. 

The task force will present its plan to board members on July 29.

A push for an ethnic studies course requirement is also happening at the higher education level including Cal State Fullerton, a university many students in the district go on to attend after finishing high school.

Students and professors at Cal State Fullerton and other Cal State universities have been advocating for a statewide assembly bill that would require a similar ethnic studies requirement be implemented within the university system since last year.

Alexandro Gradilla, the interim chair of the Department of Chicana/Chicano Studies at Cal State Fullerton, and Gregory Chris Brown, the California Faculty Association president at Cal State Fullerton, called on the board to approve the requirement. 

“It is time for everyone to learn and relearn the value (of) all cultures and people that have contributed to our society as a foundation for creating a world that is filled with justice and void of impunity. Ethnic studies must be part of the educational response to the unnecessary loss of black lives that we’re witnessing in this country,” Brown said.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.