The Sequoia Union High School District isn’t waiting for California to resolve the controversy over its statewide model curriculum in ethnic studies. Last week, the district board voted to develop an ethnic studies course all its own.
The five-member board of trustees voted unanimously on Oct. 28 to institute an ethnic studies requirement for freshmen. The curriculum will be developed by district educators and implemented beginning in the 2021-2022 academic year.
Board president Allen Weiner led the charge to introduce the new requirement. “This came to my attention several years ago,” Weiner said. “Some compelling research demonstrated that when kids from underrepresented groups have the chance to take an ethnic studies class, they did better not only in the class, but they did better in other classes as well.”
The district includes seven Peninsula high schools: East Palo Alto Academy, Carlmont High in Belmont, Redwood High and Sequoia High in Redwood City, Tide Academy in Menlo Park, Woodside High in Woodside and Menlo-Atherton High in Atherton.
Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed AB331, which would have mandated an ethnic studies course in public high schools. The veto came after months of wrangling over an original draft curriculum, which according to Jewish community leaders and others included anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist language. Others complained that the draft ignored the Jewish American story altogether, while representatives of the Armenian, Sikh, Korean and other communities said they were left out as well.
Though state education leaders and legislators, including members of the California Jewish Legislative Caucus, worked to revise the curriculum and then passed a measure they deemed satisfactory, Newsom’s veto set back the effort to implement ethnic studies widely in public high schools across the state.
We have never had issues or concerns raised about the treatment of Zionism, the experience of Jews in America or the Holocaust.
That’s when the Sequoia Union district stepped it up.
“It was a Sacramento issue,” Weiner said of the controversy, “but not an issue that has impacted us directly. Each [Sequoia school] had a course that could be labeled as an ethnic studies course. We’d been teaching them long before we had the model curriculum issue show up. Teachers developed their own classes. Now we want to have our staff develop our own.”
Weiner, who is Jewish and whose father was a refugee from the Holocaust, said his district will be mindful of including Jewish Americans in the curriculum and avoiding the pitfalls that led to charges of antisemitism in the original draft.
“We have never had issues or concerns raised about the treatment of Zionism, the experience of Jews in America or the Holocaust,” he said. “It’s never been an issue. A couple of years ago there was a swastika found at one of our sites. The community really rallied. What that showed is that this is not a community that tolerates bigotry or antisemitism.”
Bonnie Hansen, assistant superintendent for educational services, echoed Weiner’s view. “We will include a definition of antisemitism,” she said of the as-yet undrafted curriculum. “We will make sure there are guardrails in place, and that we reflect the diversity of Jewish Americans. Thanks to what happened in the state, we will make sure we will include those safeguards in our curriculum.”
Hansen added that much of the impetus for creating an ethnic studies course came from alumni of the district’s schools. She said former students had told her they went through high school not understanding much of their own ethnic history.
When they took an ethnic studies course in college, they shared that “so much became clear to me about my own personhood and would you please offer this to high school students so they don’t have to wait until college,” Hansen recounted, paraphrasing the alumni message.
Weiner’s term on the board will expire before the new ethnic studies course is instituted. But he says he will be gratified to see the curriculum’s positive impact on students.
“Students who have not seen themselves in the curriculum will suddenly say, ‘People like me are worthy of being studied and being part of my education,’” he said.