When Ashley Shim took high school history classes, she noticed something missing.
Most of the people featured in the textbooks and lessons didn’t look like her. And they didn’t look like many of the other students in the Irvine Unified School District, where half of the student body is Asian American or Pacific Islander.
“There is never a section, or a chapter even, on what Asians did to contribute to society,” the 17-year-old senior at Northwood High School said. “In the texts, it’s on the margins. There was one Asian American. I always wondered if there’s more to the story.”
Shim is part of a group of high school students trying to change this, by pushing Irvine Unified to offer courses in Asian American studies.
“Every faith, gender and race helped build this country,” she said. “The fact that we don’t know about our own ancestors and how they shaped this country is very problematic.”
Having these types of classes, Shim said, would not only give Asian American students a sense of pride in their heritage, but would also help non-Asian students better understand the city they live in, where more than 40% of residents are of Asian descent.
“I think the most important thing is having a diverse perspective on events,” said Na Won Yoon, a 17-year-old senior who is president of University High’s Korean Club. “I don’t look at this class as just an outlet for Asian American students, but also for students of other races and ethnicities to have more background information on the people they’re facing every single day.”
The high school students are part of Korean American Young Leaders (KAYL), a youth empowerment program run by the Korean American Center in Irvine. In January they launched an online petition calling for Asian American studies courses in Irvine Unified. The petition now has more than 700 signatures.
The students also launched a social media campaign and are developing a research paper to back up their position on ethnic studies. In the spring, they plan to bring their proposal to public meetings of the district’s board of education and the Irvine City Council.
Tammy Kim, co-founder and managing director of the Korean American Center, said students need to be even more vocal in pushing for change at their schools after the defeat of Assembly Bill 2772. The bill, which would have required public and charter high schools to teach ethnic studies, was vetoed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in October.
“The kids need to take it upon themselves to say, ‘This is my school district, this is where I live, these are the things that we need as students,’” said Kim, who is also an advisor to KAYL.
“It really seems like a shame that these kids have to wait until they go to college to have an understanding of who they are and where they came from and what role and impact Asian Americans have had in this society,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to wait.”
Irvine Unified offers one Asian literature class, at Portola High School, as well as Korean and Chinese language courses at several other high schools.
Kim’s son, Christian Shin, a 16-year-old junior at Northwood High School, said the group was inspired by programs in other Orange County school districts, such as Santa Ana Unified and Garden Grove Unified, which are majority students of color and offer ethnic studies classes.
“We wanted to have a similar sort of class here,” said Shin. “We really want Asian American students to learn about the Asian impact on the society that we live in today.”
Research has shown that ethnic studies can lead to tangible academic benefits.
According to a 2016 study from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, students who participated in a pilot ethnic studies program at San Francisco high schools had higher grade-point averages and attendance rates and more credits earned than those who didn’t.
“Taken at face value, these findings provide a compelling confirmation of an extensive literature that has emphasized the capacity of [culturally relevant pedagogy] to unlock the educational potential of historically marginalized students,” the report said.
Annie Brown, a public information officer for Irvine Unified, said that in compliance with the California’s FAIR Act — which requires the inclusion of people of color, people with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people into the curricula — some classes already incorporate elements of ethnic studies.
But the district is also open to exploring the idea of an Asian American studies course, providing there’s enough expressed student interest, she said.
“When we hear from our kids, we want to either fill those gaps, or we want to explore more options for classes,” Brown said. “In this case, we just haven’t heard from our students and those in the community that have started the petition.”
James Yim, one of KAYL’s regional presidents, is a senior at Santa Margarita Catholic High School. Even though he doesn’t attend an Irvine Unified school, he said it’s important for him to work on the campaign because it’s bigger than the district.
“A lot of Asian Americans don’t know much about their identity,” Yim, 17, said. “The goal of KAYL is to not only promote our culture, but to focus on teenagers, because that’s going to be the future generation — we’re going to make an impact on the world in the future.”