As a first step to address concerns about race and inequity in the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, the school board recently agreed to mandate equity training for staff members.
The training will focus on topics of race, social justice, LGBTQ rights, and anti-racist and anti-bias practices.
The board is scheduled to consider and finalize the specific topics of what the training will cover at its meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 26. Access the agenda here and the proposed board policy revisions here.
In recent months, since the summer's racial justice protests focused on police reform that emerged from the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a coalition of district students, alumni and staff presented a number of ideas to promote racial equity.
In addition to expanded training for staff on topics related to equity, the group asked the district to consider implementing a mandatory ethnic studies course for all incoming freshmen.
While the district hasn't made any major decisions about the proposal yet, the board and a number of community members responded to recent policy proposals at the state level that might have shaped when and how an ethnic studies program could be mandated.
Ethnic studies class?
The district is not alone in considering the possibility of an ethnic studies program. The Sequoia Union High School District Board of Trustees unanimously agreed to develop ethnic studies courses and mandate them for freshmen as soon as next year, the San Mateo Daily Journal reported.
And statewide, there have been ongoing discussions about mandating ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement. Recently, however, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a proposed curriculum, which had faced criticism from some who were concerned that it is anti-Semitic. The proposal, in this year's Assembly Bill 331, would have required high schools to begin offering a course by the 2025-26 school year and requiring students to complete one semester of an ethnic studies course starting in the 2029-30 school year.
Newsom said the curriculum needed revisions after he rejected a previous draft of a model curriculum, according to EdSource, a nonprofit news publication about education in California. While many school districts offer ethnic studies courses as electives, few require them or have current plans to do so, EdSource noted. There were concerns that the state's initial ethnic studies course minimized anti-Semitism and favored Palestinians over Israel in a proposed lesson about Arab Americans, and some argued that in addition to the primary ethnic groups such as African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Indigenous people, and Asian Americans, the curriculum should include the experiences of Sikhs, Armenians and Jewish Americans, according to EdSource.
Several parents and community members voiced similar concerns about the state's proposed ethnic studies curriculum, and spoke against requiring an ethnic studies course for district freshmen.
Others argued that the graduation requirements students face are already numerous, and board should also consider removing a requirement in exchange for mandating a new course. Students should also not be penalized who want to take A.P. European History, and the curriculum should be framed in a way to avoid being divisive and categorizing racial or ethnic groups into victims or oppressors, one commenter said.
Other attendees voiced support for a mandatory ethnic studies course, and made clear that the course they want implemented is not anti-Semitic or necessarily tied to the statewide proposed curriculum.
"It is not the California curriculum we want as the model," said Megan Blach, a social studies teacher in the district. "I would be very, very not OK with teaching something that was anti-Semitic," she added.
Civics teacher Seth Donnelly said that the curriculum would be focused on promoting empathy among students of different backgrounds.
"I think it is a vital component to equip the student body with a holistic understanding of diverse backgrounds," said a senior at Mountain View High School.
Board member Phil Faillace said that he favored bringing community stakeholders into the discussion sooner rather than later, including teachers, who expressed interest in helping to develop the curriculum, and the community members who voiced opposition to the proposal. "I think that we need to do that if this is going to get serious traction – or (it will) be a source of division," he said. "It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of time, but it's worth the investment."
Tackling distance learning disparities
District staff members also provided an update on how they are working to help students access and participate in distance learning. The digital divide, or the gap between those who have quality access to computers and the Internet and those who don't, continues to exist, and disparities are particularly marked between racial and ethnic groups of students within the district, according to district data.
The district has been taking steps to address that divide, Superintendent Nellie Meyer said, which include distributing 230 Internet hotspots to families in need, from several brands to give students the best service based on their location; checking out more than 3,500 Chromebooks to students, and setting up a mentor program in which struggling students are provided weekly check-ins with staff.
However, some gaps remain. In a recent survey, students were asked how stable their Internet connection is on Zoom. Of the different groups who responded, those who reported the least Internet stability were Latino students, the district reported, with 4.4% reporting their Internet connection was poor, and 60.3% reporting that it was only okay. Black students reported that 4.4% had a poor connection and 45.8% said the connection was okay, while among white students, only 1.7% reported a poor internet and 35.6% reported an okay connection.
The district is also looking at attendance as one metric to see how engaged students are, Meyer said. Attendance so far this school year is slightly lower for Black and Hispanic students than it was last year, at 97.5% for Black students and 95.7% for Hispanic students compared to 98% and 96.1% for those groups last year, respectively. However, the percentages from this school year are still higher for both groups than two years ago, in the 2018-19 school year.
"As we look at the attendance data, so far it is encouraging," said Meyer.
Overall, enrollment for the 2020-21 school year has remained stable, according to district communications officer Ursula Kroemer Leimbach.
While last year's enrollment numbered about 4,549 district students overall, this year there are 4,542 students enrolled, she said. Of those, 4,275 students enrolled in the district's Option A, for students who are ready to return to in-person classes as soon as it is considered safe to do so, and 177 opted into Option B, which committed students to distance learning throughout the semester.
In the current school year, 90 students are enrolled in alternative programs such as Middle College, College Now, and independent study. Notably, the number of students enrolled this year in Middle College increased from 26 to 46 students year-over-year and in the College Now program from 19 to 29. Both of those programs allow students to enroll in certain classes at Foothill College to get an early start on earning college credits.