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KHSD unveils plan to implement ethnic studies

The Kern High School District unveiled its plan to implement ethnic studies in the district at its board meeting last Monday.

The rollout of ethnic studies in the district will be gradual, according to Brenda Lewis, KHSD's associate superintendent of instruction. The district plans to pilot an introductory ethnic studies course as a semester-long elective for 9th graders in 2022-23, but the ultimate goal will be to make it a graduation requirement for 11th and 12th graders.

Lewis said the district is also speaking with Cal State Bakersfield professors about creating a humanities pathway for students who show interest in the field. 

But for now, Lewis said the district is working hard to make sure it gets the rollout right. That's why administrators decided to push the introduction of the course to 2022-23. 

A course description states that it will feature academically rigorous content focused on inquiry, literacy and civic-mindedness. The course aims to introduce students to the histories of people of color with a specific focus on four subgroups: African Americans, Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders, Latina/o/x American, and Native Americans. 

Lewis told the board that offering ethnic studies has been shown to bring a broad array of benefits to students and their communities.

"We hope that it will build critical thinking skills in our students, increasing self-awareness, cultural awareness in their communities — and by communities we mean their school communities, their neighborhoods and the community, the larger Bakersfield area in which they live," Lewis told the board.

At the district's Aug. 2 board meeting, the ethnic studies course and sample curriculum will be presented to the board and will be available for public review for 30 days. Lewis said in all her years in the district, no one has taken her up on the offer, but she knows the ethnic studies curriculum will be different.

"We believe that this is so important that we will host public forums for our parents once the board receives the course of study," she said.

The forums will be held at three high schools ahead of the September board meeting.

The implementation of ethnic studies in the district comes amid the backdrop of California rolling out a model ethnic studies curriculum this spring, and there's a bill in the state Legislature that would make ethnic studies a requirement. With or without the state requirement, Lewis said she believes now is the right time to roll out ethnic studies for students. Board President Jeff Flores added that the California State University system is also requiring ethnic studies.

"We’re going to implement it on Kern’s terms, not on others' terms," Flores said. "It's about appreciation of diverse cultures, it's about celebrating those cultures and their experience is part of the American experience."

District administrators and teachers began developing the course in December. The committee has solicited feedback from community members, parents and college professors. This summer it has been working on curriculum development, and it has been previewing the curriculum and receiving feedback.

Lewis said one of the primary concerns of the committee and all the individuals engaged in the process was who would teach the course.

"It’s very important that you put the right teacher with the right training in front of the class to teach ethnic studies," Lewis said.

Teachers for the pilot program will be chosen and receive professional development during the upcoming school year so they will be prepared, she said.

Lewis noted she had received some community feedback suggesting that 9th graders might be too young to handle the content. She said that the way the course is developed, it could actually improve campus culture by introducing students to the stories of various cultures early in their school career.

"Our goal is that it will help bring students of communities with diverse backgrounds together in a united community," Lewis said.

The committee restructured the course to incorporate "personal exploration that focuses on self, family and identity, while prioritizing personal and civic dispositions, which include assuming the personal, political and economic responsibilities of a citizen."

Anthony Fuentes, a social studies teacher at Foothill High School, has not been a part of this committee or broader effort to implement ethnic studies throughout the district. But he has taught a section of ethnic studies to students alongside U.S. history.

Fuentes said he can be an entertaining history teacher, but nothing quite excites his students like a curriculum where they can connect and see their own family history.

"It makes them pay attention like other stuff doesn't," he said.

He said the district seems to be doing a good job reaching out to the community and making sure the course is well-crafted. He's glad, because he's seen how the course helps his students develop empathy for one another and become empowered.

The district's rollout of ethnic studies also comes amid politically charged fights over critical race theory in school districts across the country. Lewis told the board that the course was "not aligned with critical race theory."

"They’re responding to political storms in the tea cup that fan up regularly now," said Gonzalo Santos, a CSUB professor of sociology.

Santos is not one the CSUB professors involved in the KHSD ethnic studies rollout. But he took issue with Lewis' proclamation. He said critical race theory is a field that came from the legal field that wrestles with how the law upholds racial inequality. He said that's never taught in high school and rarely in college.

"It’s like saying high school physics will not include quantum theory. It’s just for show. Of course you’re not going to include it," Santos said. "It’s dishonest and reflects a laziness in our leaders in the educational field."

He said ethnic studies is a rich field, but he said it requires us to be mature enough to not tell students "fairy tales." He said an ethnic studies curriculum doesn't even have to be limited to people of color. He said the history of Basques and Okies should be part of ethnic studies.

"We are attuned to the many histories of all people," Santos said. "We bring out all the history. History is full of injustice and history is full of conflict and to pretend otherwise is a fairy tale."