After much anticipation from educators, students and other community members, the San Francisco Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution Dec. 9 to implement an ethnic studies program in each of the district’s high schools.
The resolution, set to unroll in 2015, is estimated to cost $469,833 per year and will expand the ethnic studies pilot program already in place of five of the district’s 19 high schools, according to Gentle Blythe, chief communications officer at San Francisco Unified School District.
Gabriel De La Cruz, an ethnic studies teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School, rallied with his students in front of the district administrative office before the board meeting to demonstrate his support for the resolution.
“I support the resolution because we live in a multicultural city,” De La Cruz said. “There’s not just one culture or dominant culture in San Francisco. I think we’ve all culturally made San Francisco what it is, so I think it’s important to learn about our culture and the cultures that are out there.”
Teachers in support of the program said it equips students with knowledge about the historical contributions of ethnic minorities and offers a more accurate account of history.
Thurgood Marshall is one of the five high schools that adopted the pilot program in 2010. De La Cruz said he sets his classroom up with a community-oriented approach where students are encouraged to share personal stories and take responsibility for one another’s learning.
“The way they learn closes this ethnic divide,” De La Cruz said. “They see more similarities than differences through ethnic studies and by sharing stories so they can start working together on building against the things that are separating them.”
His students assisted in the campaign for the program by gathering signatures for a petition, making posters for the rally and posting messages of support on social media, according to De La Cruz.
The Ethnic Studies Now coalition organized an ethnic studies campaign, which included the signature petition and encouraged supporters to post 15-second videos on Instagram describing what ethnic studies means to them. Hundreds of people across the nation, including teachers and students at all grade levels, submitted photos and videos with the #ethnicstudiesSF2014 hashtag.
SF State graduate student Desiree Cook shared a photo with a message on Instagram relating the need for ethnic studies to the recent police killings of unarmed black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Cook held a sign in the photo that read, “Ethnic studies is the difference between life and death,” adding the #blackandbrownlivesmatter hashtag below.
Cook said her statement in the photo meant that inequality at every level, including education, results in unjust deaths at the hands of authorities.
“Ethnic studies is the light,” Cook said. “It brings a whole new perspective. It brings more awareness of the issues and inequalities happening in the community.”
SF State ethnic studies professor Roberto Rivera was a lecturer during the 1968 student strike that established the first and only College of Ethnic Studies in the country.
Rivera was born in Guatemala and became aware of his ethnic identity upon arriving in the United States in the 1950s. He said that until the establishment of the college, there had been no outlet for students of color to make sense of their experiences
“We felt in 1968 that we needed a place where we could talk about our history, about our situation, our values and our traditions,” Rivera said. “Most importantly, somewhere where we could talk about our contributions to this society, so that we wouldn’t see ourselves only as problems.”
Rivera said the program will help create a future with children who have a more comprehensive education.
“They are going to be more complete human beings,” Rivera said. “They are going to have a more accurate perspective of global history. Students of color are not going to be tempted to think they are strangers in this land because they are not European or because they don’t have a European culture.”
Board commissioner Jill Wyns voted in favor of the resolution and said the biggest challenges standing in the way of the program are money and teachers. She added that the district’s high schools will need to allocate funds to the program, which could result in cutting costs to other areas.
“This is complicated,” Wyns said. “What we voted here tonight doesn’t make this happen. We need to make it happen, that’s our job.”