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New life for Ethnic Studies Committee and a fresh push for required courses

Mike Szymanski | June 20, 2016



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Derrick Chau said the Ethnic Studies Committee will start meeting again.

The Ethnic Studies Committee, which LA Unified unceremoniously disbanded last year, has been renewed by the district, and members agreed to meet for up to three more years with a goal toward incorporating ethnic studies as a graduation requirement, according to Derrick Chau, director of secondary instruction at LA Unified.

“We are moving ahead with districtwide ethnic studies, but there is not a clear timeline for when it would be a graduation requirement,” Chau said. “The committee is reconvening and we gave different options and they chose to meet for a period of three years.”

The committee was originally formed to look into creating a unified course curriculum that would make ethnic studies a graduation requirement. But last year, then-Superintendent Ramon Cortines voiced opposition to the idea and said it would be too costly, with estimates up to $72 million. Cortines scuttled the idea and the committee, even though the school board asked that the district make it a graduation requirement for the class of 2019.

“It’s a shame that this district was at the forefront of making ethnic studies a graduation requirement, and now has let it lag as if there is a lack of interest,” said Jose Lara of Ethnic Studies Now, who helped instigate the renewed committee meetings last week. Lara said that after LA Unified’s vote for the program in 2014, at least seven other districts in the state have made ethnic studies courses a requirement for graduation. He said that courses are already being taught in high schools throughout the district that could be the basis of a robust class.

For a year, the advisory panel tried to get the committee renewed while students protested and the school board even renewed their call to make it a required class.

Retired teacher Allan Kakassy, who was at the meeting where the committee was renewed, said it gave him hope that the district staff would finally be committed to the classes. Kakassy said he was disappointed though that only about half of the more than 50 former committee members attended the meeting.

“This is such an important class, especially in the political climate of the news of the day and the presidential election,” Kakassy said. “We should look at all sorts of classes like this, for example an Arab-American course.”

The district is encouraging individual high schools to come up with their own specific courses, such as ones involving Asian-American and Armenian-American studies, which some schools have expressed interest in developing.

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Persistent protests have urged the district to revive the Ethnic Studies Committee.

Some high schools, in anticipation of this being a requirement, are already identifying teachers who may want to develop an ethnic studies class for their school, Chau said. He said the professional development training for the classes will be available over the summer online.

“In the fall it will be an option for some schools,” Chau said.

Meanwhile, the Ethnic Studies Committee, which was also called the Ethnic Studies Task Force, is opened to the public and will meet at least once a semester, with district staff in attendance, to discuss progress with the curriculum.

Chau said that the district is exploring ways to incorporate ethnic studies into other courses, such as English, arts, history and science. Meanwhile, they are continuing to move toward the class being a mandatory requirement, he added. However, they have dropped the idea of requiring it for the graduates of 2019.

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