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School districts throughout Orange County are increasingly debating whether or not to offer ethnic studies classes as questions still linger on exactly what the courses will teach students.

The courses are designed to teach the history, the culture, the plight and the contributions of people of color in the United States. They are intended to deviate from traditional U.S. History and other courses that some say are taught from a eurocentric lens and often watered down.

For Alexandro Gradilla, an associate professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at Cal State Fullerton, ethnic studies is about educating people about ideas and principles of liberation. 

“What ethnic studies says is that we all deserve to be free. We all deserve to exist. We all deserve to determine what is best for us,” he said. 

A study done by Stanford Graduate School of Education showed such courses increase attendance and the GPA of students who were at risk of dropping out.

But not everyone is ecstatic about these courses.

Some fear it will subject students to political indoctrination. 

Others are outraged by what they say is “Critical Race Theory” seeping into the curriculum and teaching students all white people are racist and victimizing people of color. 

“Ethnic Studies in a historical context is a reasonable and prudent exercise in educating our children,” said Orange County Board of Education President Ken Williams in an email. 

“The Orange County Department of Education early this year, however, promoted ethnic studies as a very controversial curriculum that is based on Critical Race Theory, is post-modernistic, advances an anti-religious narrative, and its foundations are relativistic academic theories rather than facts and knowledge,” Williams said. “This curriculum is also anti-American and is based on Marxist ideology, that leaves our children believing they are either oppressors or are oppressed.” 

Academics like Gradilla argue the theory is not about that at all, but it examines how laws and structures in the U.S. have been leveraged against people of color so they don’t have the same opportunity as others.

Gradilla said the current state curriculum itself is political indoctrination and ethnic studies in Orange County should look into local histories of the communities of color here.

“The current curriculum excludes so many people — whether it’s the teaching of literature or the teaching of history or the teaching of social studies, all of those are politically skewed. We just don’t realize it because the dominant skewing has been normalized,” he said.

The debate on ethnic studies has been increasing throughout the county as parents, educators and lawmakers across the state and country face a reckoning on what type of history is being taught in public schools — and what’s being left out. 

These discussions have in part been sparked by the police killing of George Floyd last year and an increase of violence and hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community this year.

The debates will be playing out at the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District board meeting tonight as well as the Garden Grove Unified School District board meeting. 

The Orange County Board of Education will meet tomorrow to discuss future forums on the course.

What does Ethnic Studies Entail And What Will the Classes Look Like in OC?

Books inside an ethnic studies classroom in the Garden Grove Unified School District. Credit: Courtesy of Jared Wallace

Gradilla said parents of students who take ethnic studies courses can probably expect their children to read autobiographies, slave narratives, historical diary entries and letters written by people of color.

He also said it would teach students analytical skills needed for college through tests that would include essays, multiple choice questions and true or false questions. 

Assignments could potentially include interviewing people alive during the civil rights movement or studying the history of murals in Orange County.

Gradilla said he didn’t learn about his own history until college.

“With these kids now, they will learn about their history and they will understand how far they’ve come in terms of a community but also the fact that we must be diligent to always commit to social change, and protecting freedom and liberty for everybody,” he said.

 In 2015, the Santa Ana Unified School District’s board first voted to introduce ethnic studies to the curriculum.

Then last year, they became the first district in the county to make it a high school graduation requirement on their own.

[Read: Santa Ana Unified School District Creates Ethnic Studies Requirement in Wake of George Floyd Protests]

Santa Ana Unified isn’t alone. 

Last month, the Anaheim Union High School District board members also voted to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement.

Meanwhile, students and alumni are rallying to get the Fullerton Joint Union High School District to do the same — so are students and alumni in the Garden Grove Unified School District.

Natalie Martinez and her group, Black Leaders of Orange County, have been working to make the course a requirement after being inspired by the Black Lives Movement to create change.

The group began meeting with the superintendent and the district board as well as getting current students involved.

Martinez said she’s confident the Garden Grove Unified School District will make ethnic studies a graduation requirement because of pressure from students and parents.

She said these classes should teach history accurately and not a watered down, eurocentric version.

“Once we know our history, then we’ll know ourselves and we’ll know our peers and that will help eradicate all the misconceptions and misinformation that we’ve been taught since we were kids, which will allow room for unity and understanding,” Martinez said.

The district will be holding a study session on ethnic studies today at 5:00 p.m.

State Bill Could Make Ethnic Studies Courses a High School Graduation Requirement

Last August, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a similar bill requiring California State University students to take such courses to graduate.

Just months ago, the State Board of Education approved a model ethnic studies curriculum for schools across California to voluntarily use following years of edits, rewrites and debate.

Also coming down the pipeline is 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.

“The state of California is sadly organized around textbooks,” Gradilla said. “Once they figure out what the standard is and how it will be assessed through its learning outcomes then they’ll develop textbook exams, etc.”

“There will be a standardized way that teachers have to talk about slavery or how they will talk about Native Americans and settler colonialism,” he added.

In his email, Williams criticized the legislation.

“Our state elected leaders have passed bad legislation, and are allowing a very different and improper method of academic instruction, rather than inculcating facts and knowledge,” his email reads. 

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. Credit: Courtesy of Benjamin Vazquez

Will Placentia Yorba Linda Unified School District offer Ethnic Studies as an elective?

Last July, Yorba Linda Unified’s board of trustees unanimously approved a resolution condemning racism and promising to implement an ethnic studies course for the district’s high schools following a petition and pressure from some educators, parents and alumni.

The development of the course will be a part of the district’s 2021-22 Local Control and Accountability plan, which is slated to go before the board today at 5 p.m.

Priya Shah, a parent in the district and a professor of Women and Gender Studies at Cal State Fullerton, said parents will be coming out to speak in favor of the course.

“It contributes to building an inclusive multiracial democracy through teaching a more thoroughgoing American history and American experience, so that students can learn not only about their own heritage and how it has been part of the American story, but about their peers as well,” Shah said

According to state data, about two thirds of the district in the 2019-2020 school year were students of color.

Shah added that it’s important for students to see themselves represented in the curriculum and that these courses will benefit all students.

“Ethnic Studies is not about teaching kids to dislike America or dislike a specific racial group because actually what it does is it helps students understand how race is formed at different times in American history. It’s more about relationships of power,” she said.

Not all parents agree with Shah and have spoken out at board meetings. 

So has Trustee Leandra Blades.

At an April board meeting, Blades spoke on the importance of equity but said it didn’t include ethnic studies. 

During her campaign for a seat on the school board last year, Blades criticized ethnic studies as a “Black Lives Matter Curriculum.”

“There is a push for socialism, transgender studies, teaching of multi genders, the theory that white people are racist and have privilege, defunding of the police, and the disruption of the nuclear family. This is only a small example of what could come across our children’s desks in school,” she wrote in an October Facebook post. “We need to return to the traditional curriculum and leave all politics and social justice issues out of the classrooms.”

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

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