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Students of color in school districts across the county want to see themselves reflected in the curriculum taught to them through ethnic studies courses — sparking debates throughout numerous local school boards.

The students — along with some parents and educators — are organizing and pushing for their district board members to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement or offered as an elective class.

The courses are designed to teach the history, the culture, the plight and the contributions of people of color in the United States. 

The class departs from traditional U.S. History and other courses, which are criticized by some as eurocentric and often watered down.

“Ethnic studies and the portrayal of history from the points of view of people who look like me is not about division, it is about accuracy,” one parent said at the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District board meeting on June 1st.

“America is a salad bowl, not a melting pot and our kids should learn about all of its parts.”

[Read: OC School Districts Are Looking at Ethnic Studies; What Exactly Will Those Classes Entail?]

At the same time, there are parents, teachers and students pushing against the classes.

Their biggest point of concern is what they call “Critical Race Theory” seeping into the curriculum. They argue that the theory is anti-American and will subject students to political indoctrination and marxist ideals.

Opponents of the theory say it will also teach students that all white people are racist while victimizing people of color.

“You want to implement a program that teaches them that some of them are oppressed and cannot do things because of their skin color. You want to implement a program that teaches some of them that they are supremacists and are possibly the cause of the oppression,” one parent said to the Tustin Unified School District board at their meeting Monday.

Academics dispute that and say the theory examines how laws and structures in the U.S. have been historically leveraged against people of color.

Nonetheless, critical race theory has become controversial across the country and the theory has been banned in a couple states, including Florida.

The debate on ethnic studies has been increasing throughout the U.S. as parents, educators and lawmakers 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. 

State lawmakers are also examining ethnic studies through a bill that could make the course a graduation requirement for high schoolers across California.

OC Board of Education to Hold Forums on Ethnic Studies

Orange County Board of Education listens to public comments on recent issues involving vaccination passports and Ethnic Studies curriculum. Credit: GARRETT TROUTMAN, Voice of OC

On Wednesday, the county’s board of education appointed board members Mari Barke and Lisa Sparks to organize a news conference before their forums on ethnic studies and critical race theory they plan to hold at Rush Park Auditorium in Rossmoor on July 27 and August 24.

The board authorized the hire of a minimum of four sheriff deputies as security for each forum.

Panelists have yet to be decided.

Some people, like board member Beckie Gomez, have previously expressed worry that the forums will be one-sided.

The board’s forum on school reopenings during the pandemic, when panelists voiced support for allowing kids back in the classroom without masks, faced similar criticism.

Other board members say the forums are intended to solely provide information about the classes.

Ken Williams, president of the board, has raised concerns about the curriculum publicly and to the Voice of OC.

It’s up to the school districts to decide if they want to teach ethnic studies, not the county board.

Districts Act on Ethnic Studies

Some residents in Rossmoor are pushing back against the location of the board of education’s ethnic studies forums. 

The Rossmoor Community Services District is holding a special meeting Tuesday 7 p.m. to decide whether to allow the forums at Rush Park Auditorium.

Jeff Barke, president of the service district’s board of directors, is the husband of Mari Barke, who sits on Orange County Board of Education.

Ethnic studies has been a contentious issue in Los Alamitos Unified — the local school district there.

The issue has dominated public comments at recent school board meetings and prompted Los Alamitos School District officials to hold their meeting on social justice standards online for safety reasons based on recommendations from local police.

Los Alamitos board members approved an elective ethnic studies course for high school seniors and juniors back in February.

Other districts have taken it a step further.

Santa Ana Unified board members approved an ethnic studies graduation requirement last year. Anaheim Union High School District board members did the same earlier this year.

Meanwhile in the Fullerton Joint Union School District and the Garden Grove Unified School District, students and alumni are leading a movement to make it a graduation requirement in both districts. 

The Garden Grove district held a study session on the matter earlier this month.

An ethnic studies classroom in the Garden Grove Unified School District. Credit: An ethnic studies classroom in the Garden Grove Unified School District.

In Tustin Unified, an ethnic studies elective course will be offered for the first time in the Fall after requests from students, alumni and parents to diversify the curriculum.

“About 73% of Tustin unified school students are people of color. They have an interest in seeing themselves and their family’s experiences reflected in their school curriculum and materials,” said Superintendent Gregory Franklin at Monday’s board meeting.

He said there are about 100 students who have registered for the course in the Fall.

During the Tustin Unified board meeting, some people criticized ethnic studies and critical race theory.

“Now you want to have a class on ethnic studies? Do you have a class on American exceptionalism?” one man said.

A few people wrote into the board to defend the course.

“Our country has reached a tipping point and our educators and communities have an opportunity to take the reins and steer our children towards facts, accurate history, critical thinking and away from falsehoods, single-minded thinking, divisiveness and hatred,” an aunt of a student wrote.

Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified to Decide on Elective Course

A screengrab from the Placentia Yorba Linda School District meeting on Jan. 21, 2021. Credit: Better Together Facebook Live Stream

There are concerns from some parents in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District that board officials will stop an elective ethnic studies class from being offered. Other parents don’t want the course.

For four years the district has partnered with Fullerton College to offer classes like Asian American studies and Chicano studies to high school students. 

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

The new board has recently faced criticism after they voted to remove language from a resolution acknowledging the mental health needs of Black students because of systemic racism and police violence. 

Newly elected trustee Leandra Blades, a former police officer who requested the language be removed, has spoken out against ethnic studies.

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

Over 15 people showed up to the board meeting on June 1st to advocate for the course.

“A course that students can choose to take shouldn’t be a battle. Providing truthful historically accurate information to students is your job,” one speaker said at the meeting.

The development of the course is tentatively a part of the district’s 2021-22 Local Control and Accountability plan, which is expected to go before the board for a vote on June 22 at 7 p.m.

People on both sides of the issue are expected to come out and speak at the meeting on the matter.

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

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