If students in your school district were organizing to gain a better education, asking for more core classes, attempting to raise their grade point averages, lower their dropout rates, and increase graduation and college matriculation rates, wouldn’t you think those worthy endeavors?

That’s exactly what students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) are doing. Since 2015 district students have been working with several organizations and nonprofits, along with the Santa Barbara Unified School District. Their goal is the institution of ethnic studies (ES) courses throughout the curriculum.

Their idea is to modify SBUSD’s existing graduation requirements to include a UC/CSU transferrable, ES course of five units, that’s one semester. The ES classes to be developed would be aligned to the current educational standards and A-G subject category approved. Students are proposing classes from women’s studies to indigenous people’s studies with everything in between. The reasoning behind the proposal is based in scholastic findings.

SBUSD has seen an achievement gap within its student population. Students of color tend to have lower GPAs, lower graduation rates, higher dropout numbers, and fewer college enrollments than white students. The statistics are listed at the Santa Barbara County Education Office website. Or you can see all district numbers compiled at the California Department of Education site.

Several studies from across the nation have shown positive shifts when ethnic studies classes are added to district coursework. This is true not only for students of color, but for white students as well. The results are remarkably similar regardless of academic level, elementary through college. Links to a representative number of these studies are on the California statewide Ethnic Studies Now website, ethnicstudiesnow.com. The survey of current research in the field by Dr. Christine Sleeter as a good place to start, “The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies: A Research Review.” Her survey of the studies showed not only academic improvement, but a growth in community cohesiveness and involvement as well, negating the false argument that ES divides students against one another.

The state has made it clear that there are eight major priorities when it comes to education:

(1) Teachers of the school district are appropriately assigned.

(2) Implementation of the academic content and performance standards

(3) Parental involvement

(4) Pupil achievement

(5) Pupil engagement

(6) School climate

(7) Pupils have access to, and are enrolled in, a broad course of study

(8) Pupil outcomes

Ethnic studies classes speak directly to numbers 4 through 8, more than half of the state’s concerns.

Right now, 11 districts in the state require ES courses for graduation. The California Teachers Association passed a motion in 2014 stating, “CTA supports the efforts that all California school districts and locals in making Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement, so that all students have an opportunity to learn about our cultural diversity and history.”

This is important because our state is a widely diverse place. We all need to know each other’s stories if we’re going to live in a cooperative way at school, in our neighborhoods and on the job.

I have witnessed firsthand the dedication of our local students because I am a member of this district’s Ethnic Studies Now! (ESN!) coalition. Students, their parents and teachers, alumni of our three high schools, SBCC and UCSB professors, along with immense support from Just Communities and the Fund for Santa Barbara and other area organizations have been working very hard. Students and their supporters have gathered thousands of signatures through a petition drive and compiled hundreds of letters and emails forwarded to district officials.

Students have held educational forums on each high school campus regarding the importance of ethnic studies. They have also organized concerts around the community, raised funds in a multiplicity of ways, and are putting on their third annual Block Party this Saturday at La Casa de la Raza. The Block Party will have educational workshops, entertainment, and food.

For the past several months ESN! members have been meeting with district officials to bring the issue of mandatory ES classes for graduation before the school board for a vote. Board members have been involved with ESN! and district officials to create the best possible ES curriculum for our district.

While the district has developed an impressive list of courses for teachers, parents, and students to increase cultural competency in our community, none of these wonderful workshops and classes is required. Also, cultural competency does not have the successful track record of improving GPAs, graduation rates, attendance, college matriculation, nor closing the achievement gap that ES classes do.

If you have any questions regarding ES or the proposed graduation requirement, please visit the www.ethnicstudiesnow.com website. And come to the Block Party this Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. at La Casa de la Raza.


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