Mountain View High cancels genocide history class

One of the most popular and demanding classes at Mountain View High School will not return in the fall.

Facing History, a semester-long course that delves into genocide and the Holocaust, has been canceled to make room for more social studies that district officials hope will boost scores on California’s standardized tests and advanced placement exams.

The decision has been met with disappointment, worry and anger.

“Right now, there is a genocide in Darfur, and before that, in Rwanda, and before that, in Bosnia,” said Sheri Morrison, who is Jewish and whose son Evan took the class a year ago. “Genocide keeps happening, which means the Shoah was not the first or last of it. These kids are our future. If we want them to be really proactive, having a small piece of history isn’t going to do it.”

Students are just as fired up.

A petition quickly circulated, garnering 166 signatures. The Oracle — the student newspaper — put the story on its front page.

Students also flocked to the Internet, where 122 students joined the Facebook group “Keep Facing History ALIVE!!!”

Stephanie Velednitsky, a 2007 graduate, wrote on Facebook: “The lessons that we learn in Facing History go beyond practical knowledge,” she said. “They help us re-evaluate our ideas of the world and our moral standards. In a time when much of the population is politically apathetic, Facing History teaches us to become actively involved in important social issues.”

Frank Navarro, who launched the class 11 years ago and has taught it every semester since, is encouraged by the community response. He has already met with the principal and district administrators. They have not budged. Still, the 31-year veteran teacher hopes to change their minds.

“Kids have shown they are willing to study and take on a very difficult history — they gravitate to it,” he said. “This history is central to the 21st century.”

The new requirements demand students take a third semester of world history, which will focus on contemporary world issues. Mountain View High will also offer sophomores an advanced placement history class.

Because the requirements leave less room for electives, Facing History enrollment dwindled to 27 students, about half the number that traditionally sign up. The district then canceled the course.

“I know the district is in a bind, but I don’t think they’re thinking creatively,” Morrison said.

A growing number of districts are, like Mountain View-Los Altos, encouraging more students to take AP classes. In 2000, three out of every 20 students surveyed took an AP exam at some point in high school. Six years later, five students out of 20 had taken an AP exam, according to the College Board, which administers the tests.

The school district’s goal is to weave Facing History lessons into other courses, said Brigitte Sarraf, associate superintendent.

Some charge that doing so will dilute the quality of the genocide lessons. Sarraf disagrees.

“I believe in the importance of the Facing History curriculum,” she said. “But there is something to be gained from exposing all students to some of the most important aspects of Facing History, as opposed to exposing very few students to a highly enriched and extensive curriculum.”

Navarro, who is not Jewish, modeled his Facing History class after the curriculum created by the national organization Facing History and Ourselves. The organization helps educators integrate lessons on racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism into English, history or sociology courses.

Sarraf said she met with Jack Weinstein, director of the organization’s Northern California chapter, on Thursday, June 21, to discuss how best to integrate Facing History concepts into their new world history classes. Weinstein estimates that while 350 schools in the greater Bay Area use some part of a Facing History lesson plan, only about 35 offer an in-depth class like Navarro’s.

Weinstein wants to support teachers any way he can, whether it is for a complete course or just one lesson. He also understands Navarro’s frustration. “Here is a public school teacher who has pushed hard for new learning for himself, and leveraged that new learning into something quite remarkable.

“Personally, I would hope that the semester course could be supported,” he added. “But in absence of it, we have an obligation to support teachers as they integrate our materials and resources into their history classes.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.