Friday, March 15, 2024

Questions from the Press, March 15, 2024: Introduction of Ethnic Studies at Sonoma Valley High School.

On Thursday, March 14th, the Sonoma Valley Unified Board of Trustees approved an Ethnic Studies Course for Sonoma Valley High School, scheduled to begin in the fall of 2024, for 9th graders. Andy Gibson, the chair of the History/Social Science Department, highlighted the course's significance. The course explores "the rich tapestry of cultures, histories, and experiences that shape the state of California and our own community." The course itself is structured around four main units: "Exploring Identity and Diversity," "Systems and Power," "Family and Community," and "Movements." Each unit examines various aspects of ethnic studies, from personal and collective identities to historical prejudice and the role of protest movements. This approach seeks to equip students with "the skills to become informed, empathetic, and active participants in our society."

The adoption of the course responds to the educational mandate set forth by California Assembly Bill 101, requiring high school students to complete a semester-long Ethnic Studies course to graduate starting with the class of 2029-2030. It also aligns with broader educational goals of fostering awareness as part of our general civics education. The primary text for the course will be "Uncharted Territory Second Edition" by Jim Burke. This is in accord with the District's commitment to ensuring the course fits the California History/Social Science Framework and the CDE Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum.

Feedback from the student body underscores the potential impact of the Ethnic Studies course. Student surveys revealed sentiments such as, "I think this would be beneficial because multiple cultures can be represented, and it is important overall to have a broadened view of the different cultures we live with." This reflects the student interest in seeing their cultures and histories represented in the curriculum, reinforcing the course's goal of fostering a sense of belonging and engagement. The course looks to "give students a well-rounded perspective on the experiences of all while placing a strong emphasis on personal reflection." In general, the course is an example of Sonoma Valley High School's effort to create an inclusive educational environment that respects and honors all voices, while also contributing to the cultivation of a respectful and understanding community, well prepared to participate in America's strong history of democratic self-government. 

Below, I answer questions from the Sonoma Index-Tribune/Santa Rosa Press Democrat regarding the course. 

1. What is your reaction to an ethnic studies course being added to the curriculum at Sonoma Valley High School in the 2024-25 school year?

It's positive that we're introducing an Ethnic Studies course at Sonoma Valley High School for the 2024-25 school year. This addition, mandated by law, signifies a step towards meeting our educational obligation to all our students, and towards an inclusive educational environment generally.

2. Why is this course needed?

The State of California created this requirement to address the need for students to understand the cultures and histories that make up our community. It's critical for democracy that, amongst other things, we have an understanding of one another when we cast our votes. 

3. Do you think it will help to improve the overall climate on campus by increasing students’ awareness of diversity? If so, tell me how.

I think that students, staff, and the community will have a stronger awareness of and appreciation of the different cultural perspectives in our Valley. I think the goal is ultimately to cultivate a respectful and inclusive environment, and I think the implementation of this course is a step on the road to that objective.

4. Do you think it will help students in their post-high school careers? If so, tell me how.

In business, especially those that have an international component, understanding diverse cultures is often the critical element in promoting win-win solutions. The skills and perspectives gained from this course should enhance our students' ability to navigate both the workplace and society, encouraging communication and empathy.

5. As the course was presented last night, how do you feel about its scope and approach?

The scope and approach of the course, as presented, seems comprehensive and appropriate, touching on important themes of cultural organization and community, which are at the core of a deep understanding of civics.

6. Do you think that it needs to be modified in any ways?

The course is well-structured, and it will of course benefit from feedback from the community and educators, built on the solid foundation of the current framework.

7. Do you view the course as presented last night as still a work in progress that might be modified before it is implemented?

Our curriculum generally gets regularly reviewed and updated by our educators to reflect new insights and developments. Almost from the moment we approve changes to curriculum, the next set of updates begins, to maintain relevance in light of further developments, and I imagine our staff are already thinking along those lines. 

8. Do you think that it is most appropriate to provide the course for ninth graders as opposed to other grade levels? Why or why not?

Offering this course to ninth graders is strategic, and balanced between the developmental stages the students are traversing as they cross the middle-to-high school boundary. The course provides a scaffolding for cultural empathy and awareness, and should encourage critical thinking at what I think is the right time in students' high school journey. It's a moment where they are preparing for future academic and social endeavors that will necessitate the meticulous work of understanding the context of those with whom they collaborate, or, indeed, disagree.

9. Do you think that it is sufficient to offer only one semester of the course rather than multiple semesters that could include other grade levels?

This course is a start, and the discussion last night noted that the curriculum could be expanded to provide more depth and engagement. I imagine staff will explore how additional semesters could further enrich students' learning experiences, especially when informed by this initial course.

10. Would you like to say anything else?
I want to express my support for the initiative and thank those who put the effort into developing this course. It represents a significant step towards preparing our students to participate in civic life, through thoughtful, informed, and responsible engagement with our democratic traditions.