Students leave Samohi after school. (File photo)
Students leave Samohi after school. (File photo)
Students leave Samohi after school. (File photo)

SMMUSD HDQTRS — The Board of Education unanimously approved an ethnic studies program last week, which officials hope will heal old wounds by empowering students with knowledge of where they and their peers come from.

The course, which will be taught in the sociology department at Santa Monica High School, has an interdisciplinary curriculum meant to provide students with a better understanding of, and empathy for, a number of cultures and experiences in America other than their own.

It will take a long look at cultural identity, show how it is formed and how those pieces mixed in the melting pot of Los Angeles, as well as the damaging use of stereotypes and why they perpetuate.

Students will study America’s social justice movements and how men and women of color organized and enacted social change through political organization, government and the courts.

Although the course will focus on African Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Latinos and Native Americans, other groups will be discussed.

The course is a real achievement for the district, which has struggled with racial conflict for many years, said school board member Oscar de la Torre.

“The community since the 1980s has advocated for a multicultural curriculum,” de la Torre said. “More than just developing one course, we’re on the path of developing a program that will prepare all of our students.”

The single course, which will be available to upper classmen, will not operate in a vacuum — school officials plan to include components in all English, history and arts classes in addition to the Freshman Seminar, where students investigate concepts of identity, family, community, values and informed decision making by analyzing events in history.

They also envision a middle school course that connects to the seminar and then to the 11th- and 12th-grade course so that students learn about themselves, their peers and their respective histories from a younger age, de la Torre said.

The Board of Education asked district officials 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-part 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.

School officials also brought in Village Nation, a program that creates assemblies specifically for African-American youth, who tend to lag behind their white and Asian peers in many measures of academic performance.

The same holds true for Latino students.

In 2012, only 36 percent of African American 11th graders and 56 percent of Latino 11th graders rated proficient or above on a standardized English language test, and only 31 percent of African-American juniors and 34 percent of Latino juniors rated proficient or above on summative high school mathematics.

In comparison, 74 percent of white juniors and 81 percent of Asians rated proficient in English and 62 percent of white juniors and 71 percent of Asians reached that score on summative high school mathematics.

In a presentation to the Board of Education last year, outgoing Samohi Principal Laurel Fretz and outgoing House Principal Renee Semik told the Board of Education that they believed a comprehensive program could change that.

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

Ron Scapp, president of the National Association for Ethnic Studies, gave the program a glowing review.

“Having reviewed and considered the course objectives, goals and description, I fully endorse what’s there and think it’s very promising,” Scapp said.

Specifically, the class covers difficult topics and issues that one would have to address, including notions of identity through political opposition, language and music, he said.

“It’s a positive, strong, clear program of study,” Scapp said.

It will launch in the 2013-14 school year.

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