Can Adding Ethnic Studies to Graduation Requirements Help Stem the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

An interdisciplinary class on race, ethnicity, and culture will now be mandatory for all LAUSD students, and advocates say it could curb the dropout crisis.

Mural by artist Jerry Jordan celebrating ethnic diversity. (Photo: Facebook)

Nov 20, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Bused from his home in a tough Los Angeles neighborhood to a mostly white suburban high school, Manuel Criollo struggled to achieve in his new surroundings—until an English teacher gave him a copy of Bless Me, Ultima, a coming-of-age story set in the Latino community, instead of Huckleberry Finn, for a reading assignment. Suddenly, says Criollo, he saw himself in a new way, and school began to matter.

“It was one of the most profound things that happened in my life,” says Criollo, recalling his late 1980s experience as though it happened last week. “I totally related to that beautiful book.”

This week, Criollo celebrated another profound experience: He helped lead a coalition of educators and community activists that convinced the Los Angeles Unified School District to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement, starting with the class of 2019. The LAUSD adopted the proposal at a meeting on Tuesday, following a raucous demonstration outside the board’s headquarters.

The goal, supporters say, is to expose students to the history and stories from their own cultures and ethnicities as well as others, promote racial tolerance, and instill in them a more accurate sense of the nation’s complex, multicultural history.

Several students at the demonstration expressed frustration at the absence of black and Latino historical and cultural figures, and the dominance of white ones, in school curricula. That void, they said, made them feel excluded from what was being taught in most classes.

Ethnic studies, the interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and culture, has long been offered in colleges but has not been widely available in high schools, except as an elective course that isn’t essential to graduation.

Criollo, however, says the new requirement has another benefit: helping disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, a disturbing trend in which at-risk students—mostly kids of color—are funneled out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system for relatively minor behavior violations.

While working to change that dynamic, Criollo says he saw troubled kids improve when they began to learn about their culture’s history—the accomplishments of the civil rights movement, for example, or the demand for Chicano equality in the 1970s.

“This can make an important contribution” to helping those students invest in their own education, he says. “When young people learn about their history, they feel a part of that continuum. It’s part of the power that ethnic studies can bring to students’ lives.”

Not everyone believes in that power. Critics say it encourages subversive thinking and promotes racial division. In Tucson, Arizona, two years ago, the school board banned ethnic studies. The board claimed that the classes had the potential to “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government” as well as foment resentment of one racial group toward another.

That ban later became a state law and was upheld as constitutional by a federal judge in 2012. Advocates for the Tucson program say they’ll continue to fight the law.

In a Huffington Post Latino Voices blog post Yale student Yvette Borga wrote that banning ethnic studies “sends the wrong messages” to students that their culture doesn’t matter and isn’t part of America. “Including racial or ethnic histories into social studies lesson plans or integrating culture into project-based learning plans can be beneficial both for the student who has little knowledge of their own racial or ethnic history and for the student who knows plenty,” wrote Borga.

Criollo says there wasn’t much opposition to the LAUSD proposal, perhaps because it’s a majority minority district: 90 percent of its students are black or Latino. The campaign to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement also had to have buy-in from teachers responsible for implementing the curricula.

“This was very heavily led by teachers,” Criollo says, noting that several educators were “hungry” to help students develop their critical-thinking skills in a creative way.

Although no formal plans have been drawn, early estimates indicate the proposal could cost as much as $3.9 million to implement in all of the district’s 140,000 schools. Ethnic studies have been part of the LAUSD’s curriculum for years, Criollo says, but it has typically been considered an elective course, and students who took those classes aren’t the ones Criollo and others are determined to reach.

With his goal of making ethnic studies a graduation requirement realized, Criollo says “now is the [start of the] hard work” of setting up the program, getting it funded, and making sure it stays on course. The political struggle was tough, he says, but the success of the program—and his own expectations—are high.

“The easy part,” he laughs, “was passing the resolution.”