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Seattle Schools may make ethnic studies mandatory

caption: A mural celebrating Chicano history at UC San Diego (2010).
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A mural celebrating Chicano history at UC San Diego (2010).
Flickr Photo/Jay Galvin (CC BY 2.0)

The Seattle School Board is considering a proposal from the Seattle-King County NAACP to require ethnic studies at every school — and possibly make the subject a graduation requirement.

"In Washington state, it’s mandatory that you have to teach Native American history, but it’s not mandatory that you have to teach ethnic studies for other cultures," said Rita Green, the NAACP Education Chair. (Tribal history became mandatory in 2015.) "Being that we are so culturally diverse, it's very important that that happens."

Aleiya Fuller, an 18-year-old senior at The Center School, agrees. She's black, and most of her classmates are white. "Just knowing that you're different, and that's okay," she said.

Fuller said she gets a lot out of teacher Jon Greenberg's social justice and civic engagement class, which Greenberg describes as emphasizing marginalized perspectives through the lens of class, race and gender.

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On a recent morning, the guest speaker was Anita Morales, who works in the district's equity and race relations division. Morales's family moved from Mexico before she was born, and she told the class about her childhood as a migrant farm worker: picking asparagus every day after school, then being called lazy when she'd nod off in class the next day.

The students were rapt.

"The level of engagement goes up astronomically when you're talking about issues that affect a lot of students' lives," Greenberg said.

Green of the NAACP points to a Stanford study that found that introducing ethnic studies improved attendance and grades for high school students at risk of dropping out.

The NAACP proposal does not strictly define ethnic studies, but the subject is often described as an interdisciplinary study of power, race, ethnicity and national origin, often including gender and sexual orientation, from the perspectives of marginalized groups. It's meant to fill in the wide gaps left by traditional textbooks, literature and curricula that predominately focus on the contributions and world views of white men.

Last year, Portland Public Schools made ethnic studies part of the required high school curriculum. And there’s a bill in the Washington state legislature to create a model ethnic studies curriculum for middle and high school students. That’s something California will soon do for its high schools.

The NAACP’s model would go further, and make ethnic studies part of required courses at every school in Seattle, and a graduation requirement. The roll-out would begin in 2017, and be in full effect in 2019.

"For me, the number-one thing is to make it mandatory," Green said. "Not only is it good for the students of color, but that it’s also good for the majority students to understand that lots of people have value and contribute from all different cultural backgrounds."

Seattle School Boardmember Rick Burke chairs the curriculum and instruction committee, which is considering the proposal.

"It aligns with the themes that are going on in Seattle right now around social justice, a heightened level of ethnic awareness," Burke said. He said requiring ethnic studies would fit in with the superintendent's primary mission: helping more students of color make the grade.

But he added that creating new curriculum could prove challenging at a time when the district is facing a possible budget deficit.

"Right now, cost underlies everything that we’re talking about in the district. I think it’s going to be a slower pace than what many of us would like to do just because of our financial restraints."

Despite that, Burke said he believes the board will make some form of the proposal a reality.

A vote could come later this spring.

Ann Dornfeld can be reached at Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.

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