The decisions we make as educators and policy makers clearly have impact on students’ lives. The further you are removed from the school site, the harder that is to see sometimes. And embedded within all decisions are unintended consequences, some anticipated and others left to be uncovered by time. My school board’s recent vote was to approve Ethnic Studies as a graduation requirement was no different. Last night, the school board meeting was packed beyond capacity, generating concern from the fire marshal. The main issue that drew so many of my colleagues out was a proposal put forth by the district at the negotiating table that would eliminate the salary table for teachers. While I clearly have really strong feelings about that, I will save that for another post (while optimistically hoping that I will not have to speak more on that utter nonsense.) The second issue that drew many of my colleagues to stay and speak until well past 9pm was the board’s proposal to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement. This is what I want to reflect on in this post.
In my current role I have been lucky enough to begin coordination of support for a core team of dedicated educators who led the charge to bring Ethnic Studies to our district, this being the first full year of its offering as a year long elective in two of our four high schools. Helping these teachers continue to think deeply about the critical pedagogy and curricular resources needed to effectively implement this program has been some of my most engaging and exciting work because of my direct experience with students in this type of teaching. And while I have never taught an “official” Ethnic Studies course, I have been part of the movement to bring the foundational theories and practices that underlie Ethnic Studies into all of the courses I have since taught. This work has led me to reconnect with old friends and colleagues as well as form new relationships in the effort to tap into and further build a community of educators committed to the field. It has been wonderful to have the support of my district in this endeavor.
Up until two weeks ago I wouldn’t have changed anything to this regard. Then came the proposal to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement for all students in our district. To be clear, this is a proposal that I unequivocally support. And yet I was compelled to speak directly to the body of decision makers last night about the way this proposal came to our board. As is common practice in many school districts, a committee is formed with the mission of asking questions, fact finding, and idea generating when systemic changes are being considered. In this case the impetus for a committee formation was the examination of whether or not our current graduation requirements were serving the majority of our students. Assuming that the committee was looking at everything from graduation rates, to college acceptance/retention, and juxtaposing that with the most current and relevant research; they arrived at the consideration to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement, probably recognizing that these programs have shown overwhelming success in positively impacting students in all of these areas, in particular are most marginalized students of color. I say assume and probably because I was not on this committee but neither was any teacher who was part of or is currently teaching the course. And while that still might not surprise or require concern, it is fundamental to understanding why our colleagues who teach health were also prompted to speak passionately about their course to the board last night and do so in a way that complicated the desire for a unified teacher front in a largely teacher driven district (I am not sure which school district in America is not “driven” by the engine that is classroom teachers but I know of many that do not place teachers in a position to help steer… and up until now I have not directly experienced this within my current district.)
What was more concerning especially to health teachers was that there were also no health teachers on the committee. And the point is quite simple: there should have been both. In making the historic recommendation to move Ethnic Studies into the category of required courses for graduation and not increasing the number of units to do so, both courses would have to be reduced from a year to a semester. And this is where the sticking point was. Again, it is not out of idealism or naivete that I chose to speak my board members about this. Once it was made clear the goals we were attempting to accomplish as a district, including the parameters, it was clear that other courses would be impacted. I return here to process. If the process had involved more direct stakeholders from an earlier stage, we possibly could have avoided the emotional and political entanglement that informed the board vote. And while I was impressed by the level of collegiality and solidarity within the face of clear disagreement and division (real or perceived) I do not believe that it had to be done this way. What if health and Ethnic Studies teachers had been able to be part of the discussion together? Would they have been able to speak in support of a resolution they both believed did more good than harm to students? Might they have had a more common understanding of the difficulty but necessity of such a decision? Would they have been more inclined to collectively imagine a change to the system as opposed to advocating in essence to keep the status quo? These are the questions that I wanted to pose to our board members to keep in mind as we move forward with what I still believe will be in the best interest of all our students and will move us closer to our shared goals of equity and success for all students.
Whether or not the sentiments expressed by stakeholders will inform the planning and implementation of this decision moving forward remains to be seen. I am hopeful that it will. And I know that I will bring my best self to any conversation or work that centers student needs in development of initiatives to get those needs met. I just hope that lessons learned from the process will better inform us moving forward.