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LAUSD board votes to add Ethnic Studies to schools’ curriculum

Vanessa Romo | November 19, 2014

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Supporters of Ethnic Studies rally outside LAUSD headquarters (Credit: Twitter user @ManuelCriollo)

Supporters of Ethnic Studies rally outside LAUSD headquarters (Credit: Twitter user @Manuel Criollo)

The LA Unified school board last night took the first step in making ethnic studies a required course for graduation by 2019, making it the second district in the country to adopt such a measure.

The resolution, proposed by board members Bennett Kayser, George McKenna and Steve Zimmer passed with Tamar Galatzan casting the only vote against the measure, after a lengthy and (somewhat) confusing discussion on what the addition of the new subject might entail.

It was a rousing victory for hundreds of students, teachers, and community activists who were at the board meeting supporting the resolution even as the final version of the proposal passed with little specificity.

What the board did agree on is that the curriculum will be phased in over the next three years, beginning with a pilot program in at least five high schools. It will become compulsory for the class of 2019. The board also charged Superintendent Ramon Cortines with overseeing a committee responsible for making recommendations on how to implement the curriculum, as early as next semester.

Among the questions that remained unanswered is how much it will cost to implement the course across all 124 high school campuses in the district; how it fits into the existing curriculum; which ethnic groups will be studied; and, what if any existing required courses it may displace.

“My concern is that there’s no money attached to the resolution,” Board Member Monica Garcia said before she voted in favor. “Whether it’s $3.4 million or $30 million, an action without a budget is nothing.”

That sentiment was echoed by Galatzan who argued the board was “working backwards on the issue.”

“I would prefer if the task force met first… I truly believe that we should work these issues out first and then bring it back with the budget and be able to implement it the following year,” she said to a rowdy crowd that booed and hissed as she continued.

Galatzan said she fears the addition of a new course requirement will cause more scheduling problems of English Language Learners and Advanced Placement students who already struggle with having a limited number of elective credits available.

As written in the approved resolution, the addition of the ethnic studies as a graduation requirement will not increase the number of core credits needed to graduate in the district — currently set at 170 — which suggests that some other graduation course requirement will have to be swapped out to make room for the new curriculum.

It’s also unclear which ethnic cultures will be included and studied in the new classes. Hispanic and African-American students make up the majority of minority students in the district, but as the resolution states, “92 languages other than English are spoken in district schools.”

In a preliminary cost/benefit analysis of adopting the course as a graduation requirement by Cortines, district officials estimate it would “likely cost approximately $3.4 million.” And, additional staffing might also be required, according to the same report.

As Zimmer said, in an effort to win maximum support for the measure, “In some places, there is resistance , but what we do here today will bring down the walls of resistance.” He added, “We are losing kids because we are not connecting to their story.”

Manuel Criollo, director of the Community Rights Coalition, a group supporting the measure, said, “This builds a young person’s sense of self and empathy for others by understanding other people’s history.” He added that students who benefit from the course tend to be those who struggle to connect to academic subject matter.

“They’re the ones who connect with it the most,” he said.

But, he cautioned, “Passing the resolution is the first part. The real conversation has to be how much money has to be allocated so it doesn’t linger as an elective.”

Crowds of students, in matching red tee-shirts cheered the board’s nearly unanimous vote. “What do we want? Ethnic Studies. When do we want it? Now,” they chanted on their way out of the board room and into the streets.

The resolution was championed by Kayser who is up for reelection next year and is currently facing five challengers for his seat.

Cortines has until June 30, 2015 to come up with a plan for implementing the new curriculum.

During the five part meeting — which included three open sessions and two closed — the board also decided to deny the renewal application of Magnolia Science Academy in Bell. The members rejected the school’s five-year renewal application based on a report by the district Inspector General that found the charter management group is “fiscally insolvent.”

Jerry Simmons, a lawyer representing the school, pleaded with the board to keep the south LA school open.

“As of this morning, Magnolia has $9,462,000 in its bank account,” he contended.

But even before the board had a chance to hear from 13 speakers, some of them near tears, and all of whom argued to keep the school open, the board voted unanimously to close the middle school.

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