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Seattle students, teachers rally for more ethnic studies and school counselors

Some students and educators are pushing Seattle Public Schools to require ethnic studies and Black history classes, increase funding for school counselors, and keep police out of schools.

Carrying signs that read “fund counselors, not cops” and “ethnic studies now,” a group of more than 30 Seattle students and teachers rallied outside the John Stanford Center Wednesday afternoon, minutes before the school board was set to vote whether to add four new courses relating to ethnic studies. Several members of the group, who came together as part of Black Lives Matter in Schools week, later addressed the board during public comment.

Lena Jones, who teaches a virtual Black studies course and English at Lincoln High School, urged the school board to protect and increase funding for ethnic studies programming across the district — something she and her students feel is especially important at a time when other states and school systems across the United States are stripping such courses amid public outcry over critical race theory.

In Seattle, activists have long pushed for more ethnic studies programming. In 2017, the Seattle-King County NAACP called on Seattle Public Schools to expand and improve ethnic studies curriculum. In response, the Seattle School Board passed a less concrete resolution that encouraged staff to better incorporate ethnic studies in current classes and directed then-Superintendent Larry Nyland to create a plan by the end of the year.

But in her classrooms now, Jones said her students feel angry that many students are only exposed to a “whitewashed” version of history. Some of Jones’ students said they feel unsafe seeing so much backlash to more inclusive versions of history. On its website, SPS says ethnic studies is embedded in curriculum for all grades and content areas. The district also outlines an array of electives, called “hidden gems,” that include ethnic, Black, and LGBTQIA+ studies. But it’s up to students to choose whether to add them to their course schedule.

As a teacher, Jones said she feels it’s her charge to educate, nurture, and “prepare our students for the complexity of the world they inherit.” Without mandatory ethnic studies, she doesn’t feel that’s possible.

“That complexity includes an infinite number of histories and within each lay unique opportunities for growth and for connection,” Jones told the board. “It is an incomprehensible disservice to our youths, to future generations, and to our country to teach only one story, only one correct perspective.”

Minutes after Jones’ remarks, board members unanimously and without discussion approved the addition of four new classes for next school year. One class will examine Latinx U.S. history. Another will focus on the often racist and stereotypical ways Native Americans are portrayed in the media. And two new languages — Kiswahili and Somali — will be taught for the first time in Seattle schools.

The Black Lives Matter demonstrators called the new courses a good step toward expanding ethnic studies, but said there’s still a lot more work to do, including making these types of classes mandatory.

On Wednesday, demonstrators shared several other demands as part of Black Lives Matter at School week. They pressed the board to end zero tolerance discipline policies that disproportionately impact the most vulnerable student populations like those with disabilities and students of color, and called for the board to prioritize hiring more Black teachers in an increasingly diverse district where most teachers are white.

Students and educators also pushed Washington’s largest public school district to hire more school counselors instead of bringing police back into school buildings as the district conducts a safety and security audit in the wake of the November shooting at Ingraham High School that left one teenager dead and two others detained for their involvement.

Miles Hagopian, a student at Mercer International Middle School, applauded the Seattle School Board’s unanimous vote in June 2020 to indefinitely suspend the district’s partnership with the city’s police department. But he demanded the board permanently ban cops in schools and encouraged the district to focus on providing more mental health support.

He pointed to a 2019 ACLU report showing that Washington’s student-to-counselor ratio is 448–to–1, far from the American School Counselor Association recommendation of 250–to–1. The report also revealed that the state’s student-school social worker ratio falls far behind the School Social Work Association of America’s recommendation of 250–to–1. Washington’s ratio stood at 14,391–to–1, according to the report.

In its most recent contract with the Seattle Education Association, the district promised to improve the student-to-counselor ratio at its highest-need middle and high schools.

“We know that cops do not prevent school shootings,” Hagopian told board members. “More guns in schools do not make schools safer and what I’m asking for is a permanent ban, not just a moratorium, on cops in schools.”

“At the end of the day, that is what really will keep Black and brown students safe,” he said.

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