For the first time ever next year, Mountain View and Los Altos high schools will offer an ethnic studies elective for all freshmen.
It’s been a long time coming. Community activists have made a concerted push for the course — the “interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity, with an emphasis on the experiences and contributions of people of color” in the country — for over a year now, and have at times accused the school board of dragging its feet and failing to make concrete commitments.
Ultimately, though, the board and an “ethnic studies task force” of social studies teachers have come through, offering the elective as promised: and in fact three years ahead of the state’s deadline for schools to require the course.
Ethnics studies is offered as an elective to all freshmen in the 2022-23 school year, and transitions to a requirement the following year. World studies, the social studies course all freshmen currently take, will be offered to sophomores alongside the existing course catalog.
Junior and senior year social studies offerings will remain unchanged.
Broadly, district documents say that ethnic studies seeks to help students better understand their and their peers’ diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, learn the root causes and impacts of racism and oppression and teach students about historical and contemporary movements for social change.
“The purpose … is to build a strong sense of community amongst our students [and] to create empathy and learn from people of all different backgrounds — while building the academic skills that are so vital throughout their four years of high school,” said Mountain View social studies teacher Dr. Julie Yick at a board meeting earlier this month. “And developing some of the skills for civic engagement and participation in our community and our democratic society.”
So far, the ethnic studies task force of social studies teachers at both Mountain View and Los Altos has outlined the first four of eight units in the class.
Those include “What is Ethnic Studies?”; “Identity and Narratives”; “The Historical Roots of Systems of Power”; and “Immigration + Migration.” Key lessons cover the immigrant experience, the lasting impacts of colonialism and how race, culture, gender and ethnicity affect worldviews.
Core freshman social studies skills like literacy, writing and public speaking will continue to be an emphasis in ethnic studies.
“We really see this class as being an inquiry based course,” said Mountain View social studies teacher Nate Bowen at the same board meeting as Yick. “It’s not a top-down, teacher telling you what to think course. It’s a class where students are learning analytical skills, evaluative skills, looking at sources to confront some really challenging and important material.”
The state department of education outlines a broad framework for what its required ethnic studies courses should look like, but leaves school districts a fair amount of room to interpret and implement the curriculum.
Implementing the course as a smaller-scale elective next year will give teachers room to make slight adjustments to the curriculum before rolling it out at full scale in the 2023-24 academic year.
It’ll also give teachers more time to tweak the world studies course that’ll be moved to sophomore year, which Bowen said will likely entail shifting the class’s focus from the 1700s through the end of WWII to the 1800s through the modern era.
Later this academic year, district staff will bring a completed version of the curriculum before the board for final approval.
“We want students to be able to talk about these items in an informed and mature and thoughtful way,” said Bowen. “That’s kind of the ground floor for civic engagement — being able to communicate about difficult topics with each other, understand different perspectives.”