Ethnic studies is on track to be rolled out as a year-long elective course in the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District next school year, with all freshmen required to take it the following fall.
Teachers on the task force that is developing the class presented to the school board on Monday, March 7, laying out some of the specifics of the course and its curriculum, including what topics each unit will cover.
The school board is expected to take a vote later this spring on whether to formally approve ethnic studies, although there was discussion at this week's meeting about whether the board would be voting on the final course, or just a pilot program for the first year.
Starting this fall, the district intends to offer ethnic studies as an elective for a limited number of students before making it a required social studies class for all freshmen starting in the 2023-2024 school year.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law last year that requires districts to offer a semester-long ethnic studies class beginning in the 2025-2026 school year. State-level debate over ethnic studies has been heated in recent years, with controversies over what content to include in the state's model curriculum.
The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District is in the process of developing its own course, which involves studying curricula used by other school districts.
Mountain View High social studies teacher Julie Yick told the board that the purpose of the course will be to build a strong sense of community among students and to help them learn from people of different backgrounds, while also building academic skills and civic engagement. She defined ethnic studies as the interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity, with an emphasis placed on the experiences and contributions of people of color.
"We see this as a really wonderful opportunity for students to learn about the diversity within our community and within the country more broadly," Yick said.
The course will be student-driven and based around inquiry, with students learning how to analyze and evaluate different sources of information, said Nate Bowen, Mountain View High's social studies department coordinator.
"We're really trying to get students to appreciate the complexity of these issues," Bowen said. "There's not necessarily a black or white way of looking at this. It's a really complex, nuanced study."
Bowen laid out for the board what he said will – and won't – happen in the course. According to Bowen, teachers won't tell students that they need to think in a certain way, there won't be any activities or lessons that divide the class based on ethnicity or privilege, and students won't be led to feel that they are either the oppressor or the oppressed.
"We're well aware of some of the pitfalls and some of the potential problems with a course like this," Bowen said.
At the same time, he said that students will be challenged to analyze complex topics and given tools to have healthy conversations about race and ethnicity.
Bowen and Yick described the seven units that are planned for the course, while doing a deeper dive into the first four, detailing the learning objectives, sample essential questions and potential assignments.
The current unit proposal is: 1) What is ethnic studies?, 2) Identity and narratives, 3) Historical origins of systems of power, 4) Immigration and migration, 5) Education and housing, 6) Justice system and 7) Social movements.
The first three units are intended to give a conceptual framework for the course, while the subsequent units dig into specific areas.
According to Bowen, there was some debate about whether to structure the course by ethnic group, with units focusing on the experiences of African Americans, Asian Americans and others. However, he said the task force decided that would be too limiting and that organizing the course thematically would allow for the inclusion of more groups.
Board discusses the proposal
The school board's discussion about the proposal partly centered on whether they would be approving the full course this spring or just a one-year pilot, and what level of detail the board would see before signing off.
Board member Phil Faillace said that he thought the board would only be voting on the first year's pilot curriculum this spring and asked whether the board would get a chance to review the syllabus and reading materials.
"I'm very uncomfortable approving something I don't know the details of," Faillace said.
District staff said the intent is for next year to act as a smaller scale implementation so that the full roll out the following year goes smoothly, but that the curriculum is meant to be functionally the same.
"Our goal very much is that this framework is going to be the framework going forward," Bowen said.
Associate Superintendent Teri Faught said that expectation is for the board to just approve the framework for a course, not the details of individual lessons and readings, which can change over time. She said that this is the same process that's followed for other courses.
Board member Sanjay Dave asked questions about the content of the course, including whether the task force would be sensitive to picking readings from authors who are part of the communities they are discussing, and whether the course would include discussion about the role that media has played in creating and condoning stereotypes.
He also questioned a part of the written description of the course's purpose that states that students will learn about the "artistic and cultural contributions of communities of color." Dave said that it is important to stress that people of color have contributed to all facets of American life, including making technological and scientific advances.
Board members generally thanked staff members for their efforts on the course thus far and for sharing their progress.
"I know this was a tremendous amount of work," Dave said. "I'm definitely very much appreciative of all the work you've done."