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The debate on whether students should learn the history, the culture and the contributions of people of color in the United States and the world — through ethnic studies classes — continues in school districts throughout Orange County.

The discussion sprung up this week in the Los Alamitos Unified and the Fullerton Joint Union High School districts.

Across the state and country, parents, educators and lawmakers face a reckoning on what type of history is being taught in public schools — and what is being left out. 

Some say ethnic studies will quell racism and hate. 

Others fear it’s more extensive look into race and culture will only sow division.

The ethnic studies debate heated up following the police killing of George Floyd last year and once again this year amid an increase of violence and hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

It’s also propelled by pending state legislation that would make an ethnic studies course a graduation requirement for high schoolers — and would require all the state’s high school districts to develop such a course by the 2025-2026 school year.

Though some school districts throughout California have already adopted such courses, albeit often as electives. 

Yet, two school districts in Orange County, Santa Ana Unified last year and Anaheim Union High School this month, have already made the course a requirement. 

The debate continues this year.

Elected school board leaders at Fullerton Joint Union High School District on Tuesday grappled with those options while staff at the district said it will take them likely until November to bring any type of ethnic studies course back to them for a vote.

Between then and now, staff said, they will have to research their options, pick the teachers they want, and design the course. That’s based on the average timeline they give for when any course is created at the district. 

Board Trustee Lauren Klatzker had questions about the district’s plans to train the selected teachers to handle such courses and the sensitive issues they entail:

“There are a lot of uncomfortable subjects that could be covered and sometimes those are hard to have in a classroom — I want to know what type of professional development would be provided (to teachers).”

That will be known when the district gets its experts together, said Dr. Sylvia Kaufman, the district’s assistant superintendent of education and assessment services: “It will be a process.”

School busses parked in Fullerton on Aug. 7, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The district offers ethnic studies to some students through a partnership with Fullerton College that’s been ongoing for “several years,” Kaufman said.

Jenna Beining, a student body voice at board meetings, said she doesn’t “know if it’s the best option to make it mandatory.

Although the incoming UC Irvine student said it’s clear something about the district’s current course offerings needs to change in the interest of bettering students’ cultural competency. 

“There needs to be a change somewhere and I think it’s important to not rush into it,” Beining said.

Only a handful of people spoke about the possible new curriculum at the Board of Trustees meeting. 

One of them was Jacob Daniel, a frequent speaker at school board meetings against ethnic studies, who said the curriculum “preaches against oppression … however, justice is not won by typecasting someone into perennial victim status,” adding the course would only further divide students.

Fullerton resident Mike Rodriguez said the curriculum presents an opportunity to study the U.S. and world history through the lens of marginalized communities. He also said he’s been a teacher for the past 17 years, including teaching ethnic studies for five.

“We can no longer push communities of color aside in our textbooks and make them what we call … ‘the other’ or ‘unseen,’” Rodriguez said, adding “I am not alone when I say I wish we learned (these topics) before college.”

“We need to learn about factors that brought different groups like Korean Americans to live in our city,” he said, as well as recent issues like the board’s vote last year to rename a high school auditorium after critics decried the namesake’s Ku Klux Klan affiliation.

Jacquelyn Moran, a Fullerton Union High School alumna, and others created an online petition calling for the district to create an ethnic studies high school graduation requirement with over 700 signatures. 

“Ethnic Studies is important in bringing the community together and learning about different people’s histories and stories that have never been told in the school,” said Moran prior to the meeting.

The move to bring such a graduation requirement to the district is being led by Moran and other high school and university students like George Rico, a La Habra High School alumnus.

“It’s not hate to say that people were kidnapped and enslaved. It’s not hate to say people belonging to indigenous communities were murdered and colonized. It’s the truth and that truth needs to be heard,” Rico said in a phone interview before the meeting.

“All of our history has been through a eurocentric lens and that has to change and ethnic studies is the perfect way to dismantle it.”

Los Alamitos District Passes Social Justice Standards Amid Pushback

Los Alamitos High School on May 10, 2021. Credit: GARRETT TROUTMAN, Voice of OC

In the Los Alamitos Unified School District, the debate over ethnic studies, critical race theory and social justice standards for teachers has dominated public comments at the board of education’s last few meetings.

It is a debate that has intensified to the point where the district decided to hold Tuesday’s meeting virtually for safety reasons.

The district’s superintendent Andrew Pulver said the decision was based on recommendations from the city’s police department, who have been working with federal and county agencies to monitor internet chatter.

“There have been some concerns with various individuals — some even out of state — potentially threatening some level of violence,” Pulver said at the meeting. “Nothing about this move was intended to silence or suppress any voices.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board unanimously approved social justice standards, a set of guidelines for K-12 teachers and administrators to develop curriculum and make schools more equitable and safe.

“We need to train and support our teachers to deal with difficult situations. We train them about bullying. We train them about other things. We have to give them the tools and the resources so that they have strategies to deal with these difficult situations,” Trustee Scott Fayette said.

Fayette criticized the name “social justice,” which he said is a loaded political term and that politics should be left out of education.

Trustee Diana Hill suggested slight tweaks in the language on some of the standards in hopes to ease some of the concerns from people who have spoken out against the standards. 

The board’s decision came after more than three hours spent reading comments submitted to the board on ethnic studies and the social justice guidelines.

Many of the comments read at the board meeting were in support of the standards and ethnic studies. 

Some people showed up at the district’s office in protest, even though the meeting was held virtually and many sent in comments against them.

A couple of parents have threatened to pull their children out of the district.

Some have criticized the social justice standards and the Southern Poverty Law Center, who came up with the standards, as biased to the left and perpetuating critical race theory. 

They say the theory is divisive, teaching that all white people are racist and creating a victim mentality for people of color. 

Some academics argue the theory is not about that at all, but looks at the ways in which laws and structures in the U.S. have been leveraged against people of color so they don’t have the same opportunity as others.

Meanwhile, the district has said the theory is not the foundation of their elective ethnic studies course they passed earlier this year. The district has also addressed questions about the standards on their website.

“One of the things we continue to say is that critical race theory is not something that we’re implementing and it’s interesting, early on that buzzword — critical race theory — was really attached to ethnic studies and after we debunked that … now suddenly, they’ve slapped that word on our social justice standards,” Pulver said.

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

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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