Parents, teachers and students packed Tuesday’s board meeting of the Santa Ana Unified School District calling for an expansion of ethnic studies throughout the system, including making the course a requirement for high school graduation. The local activism is the latest push in a statewide “Ethnic Studies Now” effort gaining victories all around California.
For all the enthusiasm in the room, spirited discussions before the board had to wait. The meeting recessed early before anyone arrived for nearly two-and-a-half hours so that trustees could attend a separate scholarship awards event scheduled around the same time. An impromptu spoken-word session broke out with activist Abraham Medina reciting “A Letter to the President: I Still Have a Dream.” After finishing the poem, Medina inspired youth telling them the actions they take can change an entire district.
“We want ethnic studies implemented throughout all the schools and we want it for high school as a graduation requirement,” Oscar Martinez, a 7th grader at Spurgeon Intermediate tells the Weekly. The student wants to learn more about the history of where his parents came from in Mexico and sees himself becoming an ethnic studies teacher in the future. “I’m pretty interested in every ethnicity, I want to learn about all their backgrounds.”
Local activists groups, including RAIZ, Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color and Spurgeon Intermediate’s own Social Justice Club, organized around the common cause of ethnic studies. Angelica Quintana and Leslie Carmona are both 7th graders at Spurgeon Intermediate and members of the Social Justice Club. “I like Frida Kahlo and her paintings,” Quintana says of who inspires her. “In our summer program, we went to the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. I saw one of her paintings and really liked it.” Carmona is so thrilled about ethnic studies that she wants to become part of the curriculum one day. “I want to be someone who changes the world,” she says. “I want to be in history and want kids to know about me!”
Finally, the school board meeting reconvened around 7:30 p.m. As a courtesy, public comments moved to the top of the agenda. A well organized speak out followed. Martinez reiterated his support for ethnic studies citing a desire to learn the real history of California missions and the truth about Christopher Columbus. Jesus Santana, a member of RAIZ, led the room in a chant of, “What do we want? Ethnic Studies! When do we want it? Now!” The students had support from university professors like Dr. Rigo Rodriguez who teaches ethnic studies at Cal State Long Beach and is a parent of children attending Santa Ana Unified schools. Jose Magcalas, a teacher at Loara High School, offered solidarity from Anaheim where he just finished teaching a first-year ethnic studies course. “You want to close the achievement gap?” Magcalas told the board. “Bring in ethnic studies!” Prior to the meeting, the Weekly asked the district for comment but didn’t receive any response. Valerie Amezcua did, however, pose for pictures with students outside the meeting. Santa Ana Unified has a handful of ethnic studies classes in high schools, including one course on Mexican-American history. Mike Rodriguez, a 7th grade history teacher at Spurgeon Intermediate is prepping for a history making class in the fall. “Next year, I’ll be teaching an ethnic studies elective at my school,” Rodriguez says. The school teacher majored in ethnic studies while a college student at UC San Diego but never had the opportunity to teach it until now. “If I’m not mistaken, I don’t know of any middle schools that are having ethnic studies in Orange County next year.”
Rodriguez also co-advises the Social Justice Club at Spurgeon Intermediate that started three years ago when students became concerned about the issues of deportation. Now, with Rodriguez, they are pushing for an ethnic studies expansion in K-12 Santa Ana schools. The call includes restorative justice practices in such classes to provide an alternative to punitive suspensions and expulsions. They also want the formation of an Ethnic Studies Summer Teacher Institute to train teachers in pedagogy that’s culturally relevant to SanTana—hopefully, including all of the Weekly‘s local history stories!
Educators point to numerous reports touting the benefits of ethnic studies, including one issued earlier this year by Stanford University examining San Francisco Unified School District. “This is the first year that San Francisco Unified has implemented an ethnic studies requirement and already, in those classes, they are seeing that enrollment is greater and grades are higher,” Rodriguez says. “What that shows is students that have a strong ethnic identity, which study after study has shown, they also show more positive academic results in the classroom. That’s not an accident.”
For ethnic studies supporters, the benefits go far beyond academic achievement. “There are naysayers, but ethnic studies is more than just a requirement and an elective,” Rodriguez says. “We want it to be something that’s transformational for students and their communities.”