The board for the Bakersfield City School District this week opened a discussion about implementing ethnic studies in the district. It’s not the first time board members or administrators broached the idea, but it was the first serious discussion about actually adopting a formal resolution in ethnic studies.
“This is embarking on something big,” said Superintendent Doc Ervin. “We can do it. It’s not going to be a problem. We just have to be patient.”
Deputy superintendent Mark Luque said BCSD teachers have been asking for the district to adopt ethnic studies. But Tuesday night's discussion was prompted by a letter from Kern County Educators for Ethnic Studies. The group is asking for the district to adopt a resolution by the end of the school year with a "clear and comprehensive vision for the implementation of ethnic studies."
Octavio Barajas, co-founder of the Kern County Educators for Ethnic Studies, said ethnic studies is a discipline that’s over 50 years old but this group was formed over the summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the protests highlighting racial injustice that followed. At every BCSD meeting since July, its members have commented about the need for incorporating the untold stories of groups including Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and Arab Americans.
In its letter, the group asked the district to partner with them on this resolution; form professional groups in the district such as a teacher leadership team; hire a teacher on special assignment focused on ethnic studies; and consult with experts on ethnic studies who have experience in K-8 districts.
Board members and administrators expressed support for ethnic studies, a partnership with the group and for the general thrust of the letter.
Ervin cautioned the board that it was a big proposal that would take time to do well, and he estimated that the district would need about nine months to build out a plan. He told board members that he’d confer with different groups and come back to them with more information in January or February. He said Tim Fulenwider, director of the Instructional Support Services Division, and Christine Chapman, executive director for curriculum and instruction, have been looking to other K-8 districts in California for models.
Chapman said the California Department of Education is in the process of developing model curriculum guidelines for school districts. They're expected in March.
California has long been a leader in ethnic studies. The first School of Ethnic Studies was established at San Francisco State University after a strike in 1968. Now not only does every CSU campus offer courses in ethnic studies, but beginning next year taking a course will be a graduation requirement for undergraduates. That makes CSUB the first campus in Kern County where ethnic studies is a requirement.
Many K-12 districts in California already have their own programs. San Francisco Unified School District was an early pioneer, piloting a program in 2010. But since then, other school districts including Los Angeles Unified, Sacramento City Unified, Coachella Valley Unified and most recently Fresno Unified have adopted ethnic studies.
Most of the discussion centered on a timeline. Some board members expressed concern about whether district administrators and educators would have the bandwidth to implement ethnic studies when the district is expending so much energy on COVID-19-era education. Trustee Shannon Zimmerman said she worried about adding one more thing onto the plate of teachers.
“I think what we need to be focusing on is getting kids back to school,” Zimmerman said. “Then once students get back to school, we’ll have to be dealing with the loss of learning and mitigating that.”
Trustee Laura Guerrero-Salgado echoed that and said that while she supports the proposal that the district’s focus needs to be on safety and learning loss.
Trustee Chris Cruz-Boone said that ethnic studies is not just about curriculum but a shift in the way students are taught and engaged. It's also about looking into the way students of color are disproportionately disciplined within the district and achievement gaps. She said ethnic studies creates opportunities for teachers to recast some of the valuable out-of-the-classroom experiences students are having, even if assessment is lower. She points to her own children: Her son learned how to make toffee and her daughter has learned how to say prayers in Spanish, because she's been attending virtual church with her grandmother.
"There are also rich experiences that students are having and a lot of them are cultural, and we can draw them into the way we're teaching," Cruz-Boone said.
Belen Carrasco, a member of the Kern County Educators for Ethnic Studies, said she was frustrated by a certain hesitancy on the part of the district and some board members to move ahead quickly. And she hopes the district isn’t waiting on the state for guidance.
"Black and indigenous people have been waiting for 500 years to be included in official narratives," she said. "Why wait for a top-down state initiative?"
Carrasco said her group has a wealth of experience from teachers and students ready to help at the local level. But she said that the board seems to be moving in the right direction and she’s “cautiously hopeful.”
Luque said there are teachers who are already putting into practice a lot of the principles that are a part of the ethnic studies discussion, like reading literature that tells stories about communities of color. He said making sure that is happening in every classroom is “a mountain to move.” But he said the district has a good foundation.
“We have to push, we have to pull, we have to support,” Luque said. “The priority is there, the urgency is there but to others’ points: the urgency of literacy proficiency and math proficiency, closing the achievement gap all has to play a role in how we develop this moving forward.”