The Chapman University leaders who convened this month at the school's first Ethnic Studies Summit were presented with a core question: Should the school create an ethnic studies department to help its students better understand and navigate the melting pot in which we all live? But for Miguel Zavala, an associate professor in Chapman's College of Educational Studies and one of the organizers of the summit along with Anat Herzog, doctoral student at Chapman, the question cut much deeper: Should ethnic studies extend to even younger students?
Zavala, who has been a public school teacher in southeast Los Angeles and who has spent summers teaching children of migrant farmworkers, thinks so.
Ethnic studies encompasses elements of social science and the humanities to examine race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and other markers of difference in society. With roots in the Civil Rights era, the coursework has been available at dozens of universities for decades.
There is currently no statewide mandate to require ethnic studies. But across California, there's a movement to make coursework in this field a graduation requirement for all high school students in the state.
Some districts have already integrated ethnic studies into their mandatory curriculum. In 2014, El Rancho Unified, in the San Gabriel Valley, became the first school district in California to adopt a system-wide ethnic studies requirement. Los Angeles Unified School District soon followed.
Santa Ana Unified and Anaheim Union High School District — two of the most economically and racially diverse in the county — are now working to implement the curriculum.
The ethnic studies movement, Zavala said, is spreading "like wildfire." But he knows getting the district leadership and administrators on board can be tricky.
"Part of why the summit is invaluable is that you need to educate not just people like myself and the students, but also district leaders need to understand that ethnic studies isn't just another class," Zavala said.
Zavala came to the summit armed with data: The positive educational impact of ethnic studies, he says, is quantifiable. He invited University of Arizona professor Nolan Cabrera to present his findings on the impact of the now-defunct Mexican-American studies program on Tucson high school students.
"What they found was very striking," Zavala said of Cabrera's research. "When they started looking at the incoming freshman with the lowest GPAs as they came in and enrolled in Mexican-American studies at Tucson High, those students were the ones who had the highest gain."
But, Zavala said, implementing a policy is only the first step. In order to be successful, any ethnic studies program needs qualified and properly trained teachers. You might have an expert in ethnic studies, but that doesn't necessarily translate to effective teaching in a high school classroom. It’s important to recognize, Zavala added, that ethnic studies is not a program for at-risk youth, and that its core principles extend beyond academic literacies to students’ reclaiming their cultural identities.
"That's a need we're seeing in classrooms. [School districts] pass ethnic studies motions, but they [still need] to educate, mentor and train the teacher in this area," Zavala said. "People in the ethnic studies field might not be versed in terms of the educational aspect, the curriculum design."
Zavala thinks Chapman is in the ideal position to train teachers to fill that void. The College of Educational Studies, he pointed out, already has coursework on diversity and difference. He is proposing creating a certificate program in teaching ethnic studies.
"As teacher-educators, if we don't think future-oriented and begin creating our credential program preparing teachers for ethnic studies, we're going to be behind," he said.
Like all proposed curricula, ethnic studies has its skeptics, Zavala said. But he believes that's a good thing.
"There is no uniformity about what it means, and I think that's actually a strength that needs to be kept. What ethnic studies is going to look like in El Rancho Unified, that's 98% Mexican-American, will look different than what ethnic studies looks like in Georgia, in the South, that's going to be predominately black."
The key is adapting the curriculum to who your students are and their region's particular history.
"It's definitely in line with culturally responsive approaches that begin with student's realities," Zavala said. "That is a universal principle."
—Leah Soleil, Tribune Content Solutions