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Santa Ana Unified readies ethnic studies graduation requirement for next school year

Yuri Lara, English teacher and poet for Godinez Fundamental High School.
Yuri Lara, English teacher and poet for Godinez Fundamental High School, sits with books she helped choose that will be used in the upcoming ethnic studies class available to ninth graders in the district.
(James Carbone)

With a hardcover copy of author Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give” firmly in hand, Santa Ana English teacher Yuri Lara spoke to parents and students one morning about a new class being offered in the fall.

As she explained, it blends English with ethnic studies and elevates works by authors of color like Thomas and also those local to Orange County.

“The parents had very engaging questions,” Lara said. “There wasn’t any apprehension about the course, just excitement.”

Lara’s workshop took place during Santa Ana Unified School District’s ethnic studies community conference last month, which brought 100 people out to Valley High School and served to introduce the roll out of its ethnic studies programs, including her English class, for the next academic year.

That’s when students will be required for the first time to take ethnic studies in order to graduate after the district’s board of trustees unanimously voted to pass the requirement in June 2020.

“School districts have the responsibility to educate students about the cultures, histories and contributions of ethnic communities to U.S. society,” the resolution read, “and to guide and teach students on how to engage in responsible and constructive social change to dismantle racism and build an inclusive democratic society.”

Even though Lara hasn’t taught her class yet, it’s one she’s already intimately familiar with.

The Godinez Fundamental High School teacher spent the early onset of the pandemic in 2020 developing the course outline before the school board’s vote. She brought up the initiative with Linn Lee, the district’s history and social sciences curriculum specialist.

“I got her full support and started working on an outline,” Lara said. “Months later, I was invited to be part of the ethnic studies steering committee in the district.”

An ad hoc committee of parents and students also formed.

The ethnic studies effort in the state’s 10th largest district brought Lara and Lee full circle.

Linn Lee, a U.S. history and social studies curriculum specialist, helped develop SAUSD's ethnic studies rollout.
Linn Lee, a U.S. history and social studies curriculum specialist, helped develop SAUSD’s ethnic studies rollout.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Lee taught U.S. history at Valley High School when Lara sat in her classroom as a student. She recalls a younger Lara as a budding poet and student activist involved with MEChA, a campus club the administration wasn’t much supportive of in those days but that Lee would later serve as advisor for.

“She has always been a student that has stood out in my early career,” Lee said. “I was really in awe of her.”

Lee helped ready the district for its ambitious requirement, which comes a full year before state legislation mandates the same in schools across California; Lara suggested an approach involving multiple subjects that would give students more options.

Dr. Sergio Chavez, the district’s director of language programs, is overseeing the ethnic studies rollout along those lines.

When students take the ethnic studies English class, which will also be offered as an honors course, during the 2022-23 academic year, it will count toward the graduation requirement.

The class itself is structured along seven units that explore questions of race, ethnicity and identity through literature. Along with Thomas’ novel, Reyna Grande’s “The Distance Between Us,” local author Sarah Rafael Garcia’s “SanTana’s Fairy Tales” and Thi Bui’s graphic novel “The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir,” serve as core texts.

For Lara, the emphasis on diverse authors reflective of O.C. ethnic communities brought her back to an eight-month internship she did at Valley High School where she realized much hadn’t changed since her days as a student.

“Most of the English teachers were still teaching the old novels,” Lara said. “I realized we needed a change in the stories that we’re teaching our students. There’s a plethora of writers of color.”

The district, where students are 96% Latino, is offering four ethnic studies classes, in all, next academic year.

In addition to the English courses, which are open to all ninth-grade students at schools across the district, there’s also an ethnic studies year-long elective as well as an ethnic studies-infused visual creative arts class.

“We are very proud of the fact that we’re way ahead of the game,” Lee said. “Our requirement is a full-year requirement. The state’s requirement is only one semester.”

Yuri Lara developed an ethnic studies English class key to the district's rollout of a related graduation requirement.
Yuri Lara developed an ethnic studies English class key to the district’s rollout of a related graduation requirement.
(James Carbone)

The district’s ethnic studies rollout also comes amid a nationwide controversy over the alleged teaching of critical race theory through ethnic studies classrooms. Locally, the furor fueled recall campaigns that fizzled out against trustees in Tustin and Los Alamitos. More successfully, the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District board of trustees passed a critical race theory ban last month.

Parents Defending Education, a Virginia-based nonprofit, flagged Lara’s course as part of its “IndoctriNation” map.

Claiming it part of the state’s ethnic studies mandate effort, the group pulled two units from the class to criticize the district’s ethnic studies curriculum as “entirely based” on critical race theory and critical gender theory.

CRC Advisors, a conservative public relations firm also based in Virginia, amplified the curriculum critique. More locally, the California Policy Center, based in Tustin, works with such like-minded groups, especially since incorporating former Santa Ana Unified trustee Ceci Iglesias’ Parent Union project into its fold.

Lance Christensen, the center’s vice president of education policy and government affairs, echoed Parents Defending Education.

“Critical race theory is just basically cultural Marxism for students,” said Christensen, who is also running for State Supt. of Public Instruction. “It’s less about teaching the warts, scars and blemishes of our history and more about a self-hate, of sorts.”

Such criticisms are disputed by Lee and Lara.

“Critical race theory is basically a graduate level law school class that goes into how racism in embedded in our justice systems,” Lee said. “This whole movement to attack ethnic studies is simply racist.”

“It’s exaggeration,” Lara added.

Instead, along with the all selected texts from Lara’s class also comes unique assignments. Her students are going to be composing an autobiographical “I Am” poem, creating a handbook on common Arab and Muslim stereotypes and working on a Youth Led Participatory Action Project on community issues they’re affected by or passionate about through much of the year.

By the time the ethnic studies community conference returns next spring, Lara hopes that students will lead workshops.

“What this class is trying to achieve is equity — cultural equity and literary equity,” she said. “I’m hoping students will be able to see themselves in the experiences of these authors.”

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