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Superintendents in Orange County see ethnic studies as key to learning and to a just society

Four Orange County school superintendents offered their ideas on ethnic studies this week, explaining why their districts are offering courses that some parents praise as much-needed and others criticize as liberal indoctrination.

In an online forum hosted by the Orange County Department of Education Wednesday, July 21, the superintendents and other educators said students, and society, benefit by studying versions of American history and culture that incorporate multicultural points of view. They also took some pointed questions.

“We have to be thoughtful about meeting the needs of our community,” said Andrew Pulver, superintendent of Los Alamitos Unified, which took heat earlier this year for adopting a social justice teaching standards and approving an ethnic studies elective.

Pulver said students and parents asked for ethnic studies after last summer’s social justice protests, some of which took place in front of Los Alamitos High. Before that, some students and parents had complained of racist incidents at Los Alamitos Unified, a once predominantly white district where the majority of students now enrolled are minorities. In 2018, for example, one Black student said she was asked why her legs were “dirty.” Others said they were called by a derogatory word.

While noting that administrators and teachers want to offer all students a safe place, Pulver suggested his district has had to come up with a way to do that. “What does ‘safety’ really mean?,” he asked.

Once, the definition was limited to physical safety. Today, Pulver added, safety at school includes educational practices that take into account a students’ social and emotional needs.

Greg Franklin, superintendent of the Tustin Unified School District agreed that students are more likely to succeed if they’re happier. “You learn more when you’re socially, emotionally healthy.”

And to facilitate learning, Franklin said, educators need to provide an environment where students feel a sense of “trust… and belonging.”

“That includes making it safe for kids to bring their entire identity to the classroom, and see their cultural heritage reflected in the stories they read and the authors that they have available.”

Franklin said multicultural education could be particularly important this fall, as students return to classes after a school year dominated by the restrictions the pandemic placed on education. Many students, in that environment, have fallen behind academically.

The district’s new ethnic studies elective, Franklin continued, “will help us bring kids in a positive way back to school, and a way they can bring their entire self to class and accelerate the learning that needs to happen.”

While the Tustin and Los Alamitos districts will be teaching ethnic studies for the first time this fall, ethnic studies courses have been offered at Anaheim Union High and Santa Ana Unified districts for years. It will be a high school graduation requirement at Anaheim Union in 2026 and at Santa Ana Unified in 2023.

Mike Matsuda, superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, said ethnic studies help build trust, something he said increasingly is lacking in society, and leads to “meaningful, authentic student voices, which then leads to civic engagement.”

“There are so many positives that come out from studying about each other, about the history of this great country,” Matsuda said. “The irony is that the more that you understand about all the good and maybe not so good things that happened in this country, the more that actually builds trust and faith back in institutions.”

Matsuda’s district focuses on career preparedness and, ultimately, he said, the final barometer of social justice is access to meaningful jobs. Students who study in an environment of inclusivity, he said, feel comfortable to share their “authentic” voices. That, in turn, leads to a better education and better careers, he said.

Jerry Almendarez, superintendent of Santa Ana Unified, agreed that ethnic studies help students to be competitive and well-rounded.

“Our responsibilities as educators are to educate the students about cultures, histories and contributions of ethnic communities to our society, and to guide and teach our students on how to engage… and work on dismantling racism and building inclusiveness,” Almendarez said.

“Our students are really demanding the access to see themselves in the curriculum that they’re engaging in,” he added. “Our parents are demanding it as well.”

Criticism of ethnic studies emerged in some of the questions submitted by teachers and others during the two-hour forum and read aloud by Al Mijares, Orange County schools’ superintendent and the moderator of the panel:

“How can we be sure that the ethnic studies curriculum that our districts implement do not include ideas that portray some ethnicities as oppressors or privileged and others as oppressed and victims? This is what leads (some) to feel that these curriculum are divisive and damaging to one’s self image.”

Franklin, of Tustin Unified, offered an answer:

“We’re going to teach honest history. And, sometimes, when you teach honest history, we haven’t always been good actors.

“Nobody should be feeling guilty about that in class,” Franklin added. “But if we’re not honest about where we’ve been, it’s going to be very difficult for us to go forward together.”

In 2016, California legislators approved a law to create an ethnic studies curriculum. Some California legislators have been pushing ever since to make it a high school graduation requirement.  But the drafting of that curriculum hit numerous snags. An initial version was roundly criticized by many groups, including Jewish leaders who said it was biased, even anti-Semitic.

Last October, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would make ethnic studies a graduation requirement, saying the version of the ethnic studies curriculum then being discussed at the State Board of Education needed revision. In March, the board adopted a final model curriculum, which districts across the state can voluntarily adopt, build upon or simply ignore. Meanwhile, California legislators are again considering making ethnic studies a graduation requirement.

Emily K. Penner, an assistant professor of education at UC Irvine, said that students who take ethnic studies classes have higher grades, better attendance and are more likely to graduate high school.

Penner was among the seven panelists in the forum. Others who spoke included Talisa Sullivan of the Riverside County Office of Education, Assistant Professor D.A. Horton, program director of Intercultural studies at California Baptist University in Riverside, and Kimberly Young, a Culver City Unified teacher and a member of a state education commission that reviews curriculum.

The panel hosted by Mijares was the first of three county forums on ethnic studies slated for this summer. The next two will be hosted by the Orange County Board of Education on July 27 and Aug. 24 at the Department of Education office in Costa Mesa.

Board President Mari Barke recently said she was disappointed that Mijares did not alert the board earlier about Wednesday’s academic conference, dubbed “Liberty and Justice for All.”

Mijares said that he scheduled Wednesday’s event as part of an annual training for educators, and not in response to the two planned forums from the Board of Education.

“There’s been so much confusion and questions about the new ethnic studies model curriculum,” Mijares said in an interview. “I want to demystify it, debunk myths, and set the record straight.”

While Wednesday’s online forum focused on the benefits of ethnic studies courses, and what the courses entail, the upcoming Board of Education town halls are expected to dive into the more controversial college-age critical race theory teachings, which opponents argue are seeping into lower grade levels and creating divisiveness.

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Source: Orange County Register

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