Our Students Deserve Ethnic Studies Now
By Natalia Cuadra-Saez
It was my second year of teaching and although I knew my classroom management skills left a lot of room for improvement, I thought at least my curriculum was student-centered and focused on social justice. Until one of my top 8th grade students approached me: “Ms. Cuadra,” she said. “Why do we always have to learn about black people as victims? Why can’t we learn about them as kings and queens?” That’s when it occurred to me: The curriculum I thought was empowering my students might actually be doing the opposite.
Students of color make up 86 percent of Boston Public Schools (BPS) students. Forty-five percent of Boston’s students have a first language other than English. Yet, the social studies course options and the curricular resources provided to Boston’s teachers do not reflect this reality. It takes more than a few units on the civil rights movement to create a curriculum that engages and validates the experiences of our students of color.
I first learned about the movement for Ethnic Studies after watching the PBS documentary Precious Knowledge, which documents the struggle of students and teachers defending a Mexican American Studies course that is ultimately outlawed by the Arizona state legislature in 2010. Since the making of this film, the Ethnic Studies movement spread across the country and several districts, including Providence, Oakland, and Los Angeles now offer Ethnic Studies courses and some have even made Ethnic Studies a required course to graduate from high school. In 2017, a federal judge declared the Arizona legislation that outlawed Mexican American Studies to be racist and unconstitutional.
While all this is happening in majority-minority districts across the nation, Boston students have almost no access to courses on Ethnic Studies, African American Studies, Latino Studies, or Asian American Studies. It is past time to bring Ethnic Studies to Boston Public Schools and make the BPS vision of creating “safe and welcoming learning environments that affirm our students’ unique cultural and linguistic strengths” a reality.
We know the positive impact Ethnic Studies courses can have on students’ academic experiences. Professor Christine Sleeter reviewed the impact of Ethnic Studies in public high schools and found “there is considerable research evidence well-designed and well-taught ethnic studies curricula have positive academic and social outcomes for students.” A 2016 Stanford study confirmed Ethnic Studies courses are particularly impactful for students who are considered at-risk of dropping out of school. The success of Ethnic Studies courses is founded on a basic and well-documented premise: students who identify positively with their ethnic origin have a better chance of academic success. Similarly, when students see themselves reflected in the curriculum, they are more likely to stay in school. If Boston is serious about closing the opportunity gap and increasing graduation rates for students of color in a meaningful way, investment in developing and offering a relevant Ethnic Studies curriculum is a must.
Fortunately, a grassroots group of BPS students and educators already started the work of developing an Ethnic Studies curriculum and advocating for its expansion and implementation. At the Boston Educators for Social Justice conference in 2018, a panel of students and educators presented on various efforts to bring Ethnic Studies to Providence and Boston schools. This panel led a group of participants at the conference to meet and discuss how to organize a movement here in Boston. Since then, with the support of the Boston Teachers Union and a $15,000 Teacher Leadership Grant, a formal organizing committee calling itself Ethnic Studies Now has been meeting on a monthly basis to organize professional development and advocacy opportunities with the goal of ensuring every single BPS student will have access to an Ethnic Studies curriculum.
The work started at the district level as well. The BPS History and Social Studies Department received two grants – a Social Emotional Learning grant and a grant from Teaching Tolerance – to convene and stipend a group of educators to begin developing unit and lesson plans for a Boston-specific Ethnic Studies curriculum.
While these grassroots efforts and funding from grants made it possible for the work to begin, this movement will only be sustainable with a commitment from the district. For this reason the Ethnic Studies Now committee calls on the leadership of the Boston Public Schools to make a commitment to bringing Ethnic Studies to students. The path to making this vision a reality must involve:
- Engaging students and educators in the creation of a Boston-specific Ethnic Studies curriculum
- Providing regular professional development opportunities for Boston educators from Pre-K to Grade 12 to gain exposure and training in implementing an Ethnic Studies curriculum
- Publishing a Boston-specific Ethnic Studies curriculum by school year 2020-2021
- Offering year-long supports for school leaders interested in developing and sustaining positive school culture grounded in Ethnic Studies practices
- Creating a high school Ethnic Studies course that satisfies a history credit required to graduate from high school
If we commit ourselves as a city – as educators, students, school leaders, district leaders, and union leaders – to creating and sustaining a more relevant and humanizing curriculum, we are sure to see our investment pay off in increased engagement, academic growth, and positive attitudes towards learning. Our students deserve no less.
About Natalia Cuadra-Saez
Natalia is a history and social studies teacher currently taking on the role of internal organizer with the Boston Teachers Union. As an organizer, she looks forward to reaching and engaging every single Boston Teachers Union member in advocating for the schools our students deserve. Natalia earned her B.A. in History and Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park and her Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.