SMMUSD HDQTRS — Santa Monica High School officials are building an ethnic studies program at the school as part of an ongoing attempt to improve relations between the racial groups on campus and achievement rates amongst minority students.

The program as envisioned includes one ethnic studies class available to upperclassmen at the school and similar components worked into all English, history and arts classes, as well as presentations to bring minorities in contact with successful and inspiring members of their own race.

The course for juniors and seniors would build upon a foundation created during Freshman Seminar, a class every freshman in the school takes that will be revamped with new information.

The program will also build into the fabric of the school’s extra academic support and a student-led messaging campaign to stave off inappropriate racial jokes.

The Board of Education asked staff to develop an ethnic studies class in the wake of an incident in May 2011 in which an African American wrestler told police that he had been chained to a locker by his teammates who then yelled racial slurs.

It was one piece of a multi-pronged response that included beefing up the district’s curriculum regarding diversity and minority populations, teaching instructors how to deal with racially-sensitive situations and creating consequences for racially-motivated hate behavior on campus.

As the district and school began putting the changes in place, the climate on campus worsened.

Between December 2011 and January 2012, multiple fights were reported in the vicinity of the campus involving students of different races.

Samohi Principal Laurel Fretz and I House Principal Renee Semik told the Board of Education last week that the new program, as envisioned, would result not only in a safer campus, but also shrink the sizable achievement gap seen between African American and Latino students and their white and Asian American counterparts.

“We think that this would impact our graduation rate and our achievement gap, and that it would naturally do that,” Fretz said.

Statewide test results from 2010 showed that while 89 percent of Samohi’s white students and 85.7 percent of its Asian students were considered proficient in English, that number dropped to 60.8 percent of African American students and 67.5 percent of Latino students.

In mathematics, the numbers were far worse, with only 38 percent of African American students and 53.4 percent of Latino students reaching levels of proficiency.

Minority students are also less likely to enroll in higher-level courses offered at the school.

A group of students in an Advanced Placement Spanish program examined enrollment in advanced and honors courses and found that minority students were underrepresented, said Peggy Harris, director of curriculum and instruction at the district.

Officials will use other metrics to measure the academic and social impact of the class and program, but they expect to see results by the end of the first year, Semik said.

“Research has continued to show that if a school creates and reinforces an environment that supports positive racial identity development then students of color show an increase, sometimes dramatically, in high school graduation, college attendance and college graduation,” Semik wrote in an e-mail.

There is something to that, said Ron Scapp.

Scapp is the president of the National Association for Ethnic Studies, an organization that researches ethnic studies and supports schools and individuals in establishing curriculums.

Any academic institution that formally and genuinely acknowledges the social, cultural and linguistic needs of their students always have better outcomes, Scapp said.

“I do believe that ethnic studies programs have a direct impact on student achievement, but it doesn’t have to be through ethnic studies per se,” Scapp said. “A good math program could do this if the teacher was aware of the social culture, et cetera.”

There’s still a long way to go.

Once the curriculum is developed, it will go to the University of California system for approval so that the course counts toward acceptance requirements, upping the chance that busy high school students will take it.

That process can take between four weeks and four months, Fretz said.

Officials are determined not to let the program take on a “cookie cutter” feel, and still must decide which teachers will take on the class.

The teacher is a big part of the program’s success, Scapp said.

“One of the most fundamental components is the element of honesty on the part of the teachers and the students,” Scapp said.

If a teacher is going through the motions or doesn’t know how to facilitate the conversations that an ethnic studies class requires, the class won’t work.

Even factoring in those delays, the district could begin shopping the class around to students as early as spring of 2013.

ashley@smdp.com