After two years, Oakland nearing goal for high school ethnic studies courses

Jason Muñiz stands in the door frame that separates his classroom from the bright hallway full of lockers, with his hands holding onto the frame behind him. He looks back and forth from the high school students who are greeting each other before taking a seat inside the classroom, and welcomes the ones who are just walking in. When the school bell rings, Muñiz walks to the front of the classroom, closing the door behind him. “Thank you for being in your seats,” Muñiz tells the class.

In his classroom, colorful posters and student artwork are everywhere. An American flag hangs on the right side of the whiteboard, with a frame on top of it that reads “Homeland Security” followed by a picture of Native American chiefs. On the back wall, yellow and green rectangles of paper are pinned to the wall, alternating colors to create a checkered effect. The papers display vocabulary words such as “segregation,” “ethnicity,” “power,” “marginalize,” “exploit,” “bias,” and “system.” Next to them is a poster that was once used to lead a student-organized demonstration, a long white sheet of poster paper that reads “May Day March.”

After a quick warm up exercise, Muñiz begins his lesson, titled “Systems and Power.” He begins to ask his students: “What is power? Who has power over you? Who do you have power over?”

Muñiz’s class at Fremont High School is among the eight high schools in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) that are currently offering an ethnic studies course. (The others are Madison Park Academy, Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, Coliseum College Preparatory Academy, Oakland Technical High School, Skyline High School, Fremont High School, Castlemont High School, and McClymonds High School.)

In 2015, the Oakland School Board passed a policy that states that by the 2018-2019 school year, all high schools must offer an ethnic studies course. The single course is a required 9th grade elective. In order to achieve this goal, the OUSD created a three-year program that piloted the course with a small group of teachers in the 2016-17 school year, including Muñiz.

The course analyzes systems of oppression by providing histories and teaching about the cultures of historically marginalized groups. According to the school board’s policy, teaching ethnic studies “provides engaging content that supports the identity development of students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds by drawing from their experiences, exposing them to new horizons, and fostering their ability to reflect critically and take action in the community.”

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Teachers like Muñiz believe that ethnic studies can play a powerful role in shaping young adults’ system of beliefs, especially in the OUSD, one of the most ethnically diverse school districts in the world. When it comes to student body diversity, 41.3 percent of OUSD students are Latino, 26.2 percent are African American, 13.6 percent are Asian, 11.1 percent are White, 0.8 percent are Filipino, 3.9 percent are Multi-Ethnicity, 1.1 percent are Pacific Islander, and 0.3 percent are Native American.

“My course is really one that gives the students a little more of a vocabulary to able to understand the things that are part of their world,” Muñiz said. His course, he said, “is designed to talk about personal identity, dominant counter narratives about identity, systems and power.”

Advocates for ethnic studies say much has been accomplished in the last two years during the pilot period, and that it has allowed students to learn about their classmates’ cultures as well as their own. Yet, with only one year left of the pilot program, the clock is ticking for the implementation of ethnic studies in the remaining six high schools that do not offer the course yet.

According to Lailan Huen, director of Asian Pacific Islander Achievement at the OUSD Office of Equity, the policy’s supporters are continuing their efforts to implement the classes at the remaining high schools by creating more options for classes to qualify as ethnic studies courses. “How do we actually get all of our history classes in general to have a framework around ethnic studies? That’s one of the biggest challenges,” said Huen.

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Ethnic studies is an interdisciplinary field that covers diversity in society, such as diversity of race, sexuality or gender. The push for ethnic studies began during the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the Civil Rights Movement sparked a thirst for knowledge and self-identification among minorities in the United States. In 1968, the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a coalition formed by minority student organizations at the San Francisco State University, led a strike at the university, which led to the creation of the first College of Ethnic Studies in the United States in 1969. Currently, the College of Ethnic Studies is divided into the Asian American Studies, Africana Studies, Latina/Latino Studies, American Indian Studies, and Race and Resistance Studies, and offers over 175 courses every semester.

In 2014, the El Rancho Unified School District, in the city of Pico Rivera, was the first in California to make taking an ethnic studies course a graduation requirement for high school students.That same year, the Los Angeles Unified School District passed a policy with the same purpose.

“Ethnic studies represents the marginalized and disenfranchised communities here in North America,” said Fela Uhuru, an ethnic studies professor at Latino College Prep and Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, California. “It really brings life to the historical struggles that we [minorities] have been dealing with or have dealt with, and also the contemporary struggles that we are dealing with today,” he added, saying this is the reason why he feels it should be taught at all education levels.

In some parts of the country, the idea remains controversial. In 2010, Arizona’s legislature passed the bill HB 2281, banning ethnic studies courses that “promote resentment towards a race or class of people” and “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.” In 2012, the Tucson Unified School District suspended its Mexican-American studies program after a federal judge ruled that it was racially motivated.

Huen, who had worked with OUSD since 2008, said that people within the district have wanted ethnic studies courses since they were recognized at the university level around 50 years ago. She has advocated for ethnic studies since her own time attending Skyline High School.


Green icons indicate high schools that offer the 9th-grade ethnic studies course. Red icons show high schools that do not offer the 9th-grade ethnic studies course.

“[Students] have to see themselves as scholars, as people who are actively understanding the world. The best way to do that is to have them analyze their own lives, their families, communities, and neighborhoods, to really see themselves as agents in their own land,” said Huen about the long-term educational and personal effect that ethnic studies courses have on minority students.

Before the Oakland School Board passed its policy in 2015, there were only a few scattered classes, such as Raza (Mexican American studies) courses, and an African American studies course. Leona Kwon, a teacher at Castlemont High School, had begun teaching an ethnic studies course in 2012.

Efforts to launch a broader program began around 2008 when local groups, such as the OUSD’s Office of Equity, Youth Together, Oakland Kids First, and others conducted student surveys and focus groups, and recommended to the schools and the city that ethnic studies be included as part of the curriculum. “It was actually really inspired by student leaders who had been pushing the district and really challenging us as educators to create more courses that are responsive to their needs. So they were the inspiration for our work,” said Young Whan Choi, OUSD’s manager of performance assessment and ethnic studies and career technical courses.

Choi, along with Marisa Villegas, an 8th grade humanities teacher at Melrose Leadership Academy, were leaders in pushing the district for an ethnic studies requirement. “[Choi] had approached board members, and no one gave him any attention,” said School Board Director Roseann Torres (District 5).

Torres learned about Choi’s interest, and also approached Dr. Curtis Acosta, a leader of the Mexican American studies program in Tucson. After that program was suspended, Acosta took the Tucson Unified School District to court and won. Choi provided Torres with the data and research he had already done on ethnic studies, and Torres helped the board begin to implement a plan. “[Ethnic studies] matters because it’s relevant to teach history more accurately,” said Torres.

The OUSD’s framework comes from ideas originated by Dr. Jose Cuellar from the Chicano/Latino Ethnic Studies Paradigm in CSU San Francisco, but was modified and added to by a team of Oakland teachers. Among other things, it dictates hiring qualified teachers who have had experience with ethnic studies or have a college degree in ethnic studies to teach these courses. “Ethnic Studies is a content and pedagogy that humanizes and empowers all people by honoring histories and cultures of historically marginalized groups, by employing multiple disciplines and perspectives to critically analyze systems of oppression, and by promoting action in solidarity with others to transform students’ lives and communities,” the framework reads.

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The board voted for the policy in October, 2015. During the three-year pilot period, the OUSD’s ethnic studies committee is identifying teachers with the required backgrounds who are comfortable teaching ethnic studies and who have a personal connection to the topics discussed in the course. “White educators that teach ethnic studies and the way they approach this work, I think is an important question. Their experience differs,” said Choi about the decision to bring teachers of color to teach these courses, in order for them to better identify with the students.

Once the pilot program comes to an end, all 14 high schools in the OUSD will require 9th graders to take the ethnic studies course as well as offer dual enrollment, which allows high school students to take college ethnic studies courses. According to Torres, dual enrollment prepares students for college. “The more that we can take that out of the way while they are in high school, they can hit the ground running in college and then they can get out and have less debt,” Torres said.

The school board’s policy also states that the district should use its ethnic studies framework to inform the teaching practices at other grade levels. Torres believes that the next step would be to expand the course to 8th graders to create a two-year experience for students. “It really starts to be apparent that student success in high schools starts in 8th grade, before they get to high school, as far as race and issues in class,” Torres said. “So if we can start there with more positivity, then they have a better chance of graduating and succeeding in life.”

Even though the 9th grade course is currently part of a pilot program, Torres believes ethnic studies will continue to be a part of the OUSD curriculum. “I think of the policy as a permanent change in the district,” Torres said. “It isn’t something I would ever anticipate that we would ever take out. Because once you add it, once you learn how to do it, we’ve done it.”

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Kiaunte Lewis, a 10th grader at Fremont High School, believes that because of Muñiz’s class he is more aware of the world he lives in and questions what he hears on the news. According to Lewis, “There is always another side to every story.”

Lewis said that one activity in Muñiz’s course is a lesson on misleading definitions of vocabulary words such as “bias” and “stereotype.” It was the student’s responsibility to find a reliable source that showed the correct definition, teaching the students that they must verify information for themselves. “It was different. It was real. It wasn’t lies, like other history classes or any other class.” Lewis said. “He didn’t hold nothing back. He told the truth.”

Lewis moved to Oakland last school year from Mississippi, and he said that back home, he never had a course like this one. One of the lessons that came as a complete shock to Lewis was the violent story of Christopher Columbus’s colonization of the Americas, and how he had slaves and abused indigenous people. “They never said that in elementary school or middle school,” Lewis said. “They never said the real side of it.”

After school, Lewis went home and shared what he had learned with his parents, who he said didn’t believe him. After endless back and forth with them, Lewis simply told them, “Google it.”

Even though Fremont High School only offers one ethnic studies course, Lewis hopes to have the opportunity to take more courses in the future.

City of Oakland Population
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Maria Barraza, also a 10th grader, said she was also disappointed to not be able to take another ethnic studies course in high school. Barraza said that since she took Muñiz’s class last year she has been participating in marches for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Oakland and San Francisco. For Barraza, Muñiz’s lesson on oppression was the one that she holds close, saying that the course thought her how to stand up for herself. “Not a lot of high schools put a lot of interest in the wellbeing of the community and helping them to know how to stand up for themselves when they’re not feeling like they’re being treated like anyone else,” Barraza said.

Barraza said she has used the knowledge that she has gained in the course to advise one of her friend’s whose parents were being discriminated against at work. “My friend told me the story about what her parents were going through at work and I said, ‘That’s not right.’ Even though they were born here, they still have rights. Every human is born with rights, no matter where you come from,” Barraza said.

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On a Friday afternoon before the Thanksgiving break, Muñiz is almost at the end of his lesson. He pulls up the last slide of his presentation, which has a picture of a white man with light brown curls that frame his face, wearing a fancy black hat that folds at the sides.

“Raise your hands if you knows who this man is,” Muñiz asks his students. Almost all of the students eagerly do. Muñiz asks his students what the man did. The students’ answers range from: “He discovered America” to “He sailed the deep sea.” One young woman says: “He was captain of a ship. He went to this so-called ‘new country’ that was discovered by him and took over many people’s’ lives and homes, and raped, and had slaves.”

Muñiz’s opens his eyes wide. “What? We talking about the devil or a guy?” Muñiz asks.

Many of the students quickly begin to answer, yelling “a guy!” Someone jokingly shouts, “My aunt!”

But before Muñiz can answer, the school bell rings. “We might be talking about both,” he says. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll unpack some Christopher Columbus stuff when we come back. Have a good holiday.”

Some students grab their bags, groaning a little with disappointment at the cliffhanger that Muñiz used to end his lecture. After all, they are 14 and 15 year-olds who are learning something that, according to Muñiz, “is hard for adults to understand.” Muñiz believes that linking controversial historical events with an academic vocabulary demonstrates to his students how the events relate to their lives. “The controversy around the life, sins, and accomplishments of Columbus also allows me to show students the connections between events in the past and the racial, ethnic, and social identities they claim in the present,” Muñiz says.

Even though Muñiz has been a teacher at Fremont High School for six years, he says that teaching ethnic studies for freshmen will be a lifelong learning process, one that he works on day by day, year by year, to offer the best learning experience to his students. He says he wants to teach his students: “Speak up, make sure that you are somebody who has the authority to do something about the things that upset you.”

This story was updated on December 13 to correct some details about how the OUSD’s framework was created, and their policies for ethnic studies integration at other grade levels. 

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