Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of a multi-part series about the Santa Monica-Malibu school district’s achievement gap.
As the Santa Monica-Malibu school district attempts to close longstanding achievement gaps, perhaps it should look to Garfield High School for inspiration.
Yes, the one in East Los Angeles.
That was among Pedro Noguera’s ideas for SMMUSD officials to consider earlier this month as he pinpointed problems and outlined solutions for a district that is trying to close disparities in academic success between minority students and their peers.
The renowned education reformer made his suggestion in response to a question posed by Board of Education member Oscar de la Torre, who asked whether it’s better to have distinct ethnic studies classes or to incorporate culturally responsive pedagogy into other academic subjects.
“There are many ways to do it,” Noguera said. “At Garfield, students across the school are studying their community. If there’s not an understanding of culture as a lived experience, kids may no more connect to that history. … We have to empower teachers to plan and think about how to integrate it throughout the curriculum.”
Ethnic studies has been considered as one of many strategies in the district’s ongoing attempts to close the achievement gap, which was clearly demonstrated in results from recently implemented state tests. Officials have also noted the importance of professional development to improve cultural understanding among teachers, parent engagement, support for English language learners, freshman seminars and fee waivers for the PSAT and Advanced Placement exams, among other tactics.
It remains to be seen how ethnic studies will be handled in the district, which offers a course on the subject at Santa Monica High School.
The school board in 2012 asked staff to develop an ethnic studies class to be featured in the Samohi social studies department. The board’s directive came in the wake of a 2011 incident in which an African-American member of the high school wrestling team was allegedly chained to a locker by teammates who then yelled racial slurs. The incident led to a civil rights complaint and calls for remedies to a toxic campus climate.
In 2013, the board approved the ethnic studies class for upperclassmen that was launched on campus that fall. It examines cultural identities, social justice movements and the damaging effects of racial stereotypes, among other topics.
Noguera, who was hired last year to help the district deal with issues regarding equity and access, visited the ethnic studies class at Samohi during his recent observations throughout SMMUSD.
“It’s a popular class,” he said. “There is high demand, high interest.”
The interdisciplinary course was not meant to exist in a vacuum, however, and the concepts were expected to be infused into the material in other classes on campus.
The global citizenship subcommittee of the district’s advisory committee on intercultural equity and excellence has tried to ease tensions among students and improve cultural proficiency among teachers while advocating for the expansion of Samohi’s ethnic studies program.
In September, the role of ethnic studies was considered during a special joint meeting of the SMMUSD and Santa Monica College boards as officials discussed ways to close achievement gaps and prepare students for higher education and beyond.
The subject was also broached by the L.A. Unified school board this month as advocates lobbied for more ethnic studies classes.