Students push Seattle school board to support ethnic studies as central to the American experience

Students at Seattle school board meeting call for mandatory ethnic studies curriculum.

By Sabrina Holcomb

The Seattle school board got the message loud and clear—if they missed it in the chants and signs demanding “Ethnic Studies Now!” from the students, educators, and parents who packed last week’s public hearing, they heard in the flood of public testimony.

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“Students of color need to learn about people who look like them to see their worth in this world,” explains high school senior Aleiya Fuller.

“Ethnic studies give students a perspective on the world and life that isn’t exclusively white, male, and Western,” declares her friend and classmate, Mackenzie Martinez.

America’s schools already have a Euro-American ethnic studies curriculum, point out the students. They’re just asking that all of the people who weaved the fabric of the nation be included.

The proposal to make ethnic studies a mandatory part of the curriculum by 2020 was submitted to the school board by the Seattle/King County NAACP.

Inspired by the adoption of ethnic studies programs for the city of Portland and the entire state of California, the NAACP worked closely with a broad coalition of Washington educators to craft a similar resolution for Seattle’s schools.

Aliya’s and MacKenzie’s social studies teacher, Jon Greenburg, is fully active in the movement. A member of the Seattle Education Association’s (SEA) Social Equality Educators and the Equity and Race Advisory Committee that advises the superintendent, Greenburg was energized by the school board meeting.

“All the research confirms what I’ve learned through my own experiences in the classroom,” says Greenburg. “Both students of color and White students benefit from ethnic studies—academically and socially. So why aren’t more school districts doing it?”

Greenburg and other advocates point to a Stanford University study which found that attendance increased by 21%, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and earned credits by 23 for San Francisco high school students enrolled in ethnic studies courses.

A University of Arizona study showed higher graduation rates and test scores across subjects for students in a Tucson ethnic studies program. In fact, students in the program outscored White students at the same school on state tests.

In addition, studies of college students found that diversity courses boost critical thinking and problem-solving and have a greater positive impact on White students than students of color.

“Anytime I used culture-based learning, student engagement went up,” confirms Washington science teacher Michael Peña. “One of the biggest hang-ups with ethnic studies is that people think the courses are just designed for people of color, which is kind of sad.”

Peña, who is education chair for the Snohomish County NAACP, 20 miles north of Seattle, was part of the coalition that developed the Seattle ethnic studies resolution. He’s also working with a state legislator on a bill mandating a model ethnic studies curriculum for the state of Washington. “The bill didn’t make it this year but we’ll be back—you can count it,” vows Pena.

Meanwhile, spurred by last’s week’s emotional public hearing, the Seattle school board is expected to make a statement of support for ethnic studies at the end of this month.

“Our goal is to turn that support into a mandate for ethnic studies, with a concrete timeline and plan for implementation,” says Jon Greenburg, who counts on public pressure to push it up the school board’s list of priorities.
He and fellow educators will discuss the best way to accomplish their goal at a summit this Saturday hosted by SEA’s Center for Race and Equity.

Greenburg says he anticipates push back from people who believe that ethnic studies courses are divisive, yet his experience has been the complete opposite.

“Providing a curriculum that includes all the groups who have contributed to this country and a safe place where students can share their experiences around race creates unity, not division.”

Greenburg should know. When he ran into resistance for teaching a class about race several years ago, students of all races came to his defense, even making a grand gesture of support for him at their graduation ceremony.

“I was overwhelmed by how many students and alumni fought to bring the curriculum back,” he says. “It gives me the courage to keep fighting.”

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