Learning Our Story: Ethnic Studies in San Francisco High Schools

by jessica chin

When I asked Lincoln High School junior Andrew Forbes what he thought Ethnic Studies was, he stared blankly and then answered, “Uhh…the study of ethnicities?” Not exactly the definition I had in mind. However, thinking back to high school, if someone had asked me what Ethnic Studies was, I probably would have given the same confused answer as Forbes did. As a teenager growing up in the diverse public school system of San Francisco, though, I was able to learn Ethnic Studies lessons indirectly; in place of textbooks and lectures, I had life experiences and confrontations.

But that doesn’t mean these types of issues shouldn’t be discussed. In fact, it’s an even greater incentive to talk about them.

The San Francisco Unified School District recently passed a measure to offer 10 Ethnic Studies classes in five of the city’s high schools. The school board will designate $253,540 towards developing the Ethnic Studies curriculum. The end result: students will learn about a topic that applies to their daily lives, while earning six units of college credit.

Ninth grade students in these high schools will take an Ethnic Studies course in place of history their first year. Ethnic Studies, an alternative and more inclusive way of looking at history, seems especially appropriate in this setting where 90 percent of the student population are students of color. It’s essential to let other voices and other histories be shared.

When have we ever learned about our own history in textbooks? I knew that my family had first arrived in the United States during the Gold Rush, but all the pages I read and all the images I saw in my school textbooks were of white men. I always wondered, was my history even real? Did it exist?

Lowell High School junior Christina Won commented that “history often glorifies the figures that conquer territories and thus extend their respective countries’ empires, but if you think about it, there are tons of people that suffer in that transition. Also, cultures are so different from nation to nation, and I think we all have something to learn from each other.”

This makes us ask: what is left out in the histories we are taught in school?

George Washington High School senior Adrienne Tran discussed what she has learned from her volunteer work in Chinatown that was not taught in her regular history classes. Said Tran, “I learned that even before Brown vs. Board of Education, there was the case of Tape vs. Hurley, where an Asian girl challenged segregation in schools right in San Francisco; that was very empowering for me.”

One of the pilot program’s main goals is to empower youth. The classes are offered as a part of the California State University’s Step to College program and targets students who may not consider college an option. It aims to show them that they can do college level work and motivate them to pursue higher education.

The Ethnic Studies program has gained the support of many local politicians and activists including School Board Vice President Jane Kim and Board Commissioner Sandra Lee Fewer. Other locals rallying for the program include Supervisor and former San Francisco State Ethnic Studies professor Eric Mar, as well as local organizations such as Pin@y Educational Partnerships, which works on creating a method of teaching and researching Filipina/o American history.

However, some controversy surrounds the cost of the program. People question why a school district that is struggling to make ends meet would accumulate more expenses.

As a student in the Ethnic Studies Department, I’d like to believe that it’s worth it. San Francisco State University, one of the universities where Ethnic Studies was originally founded, has offered to train and assist teachers in order to lower the cost of the program. With everyone chipping in and feeling excited for this program, is it not worth the money? Who is to say that it isn’t “essential” to our education? Self identity, unspoken histories, the stories of our ancestors – I’d say that’s pretty important.

Tran states, “Honestly, if I wasn’t so involved in the campaign and knew about the curriculum, I would have thought that it was a waste of education funds, considering the huge deficit that California is in right now and all the teachers that are receiving pink slips; however, I feel like Ethnic Studies has great potential to play a role in helping decrease truancy rates and encouraging students to be generally interested in school. Some people argue that Ethnic Studies is a waste of money and that no one would hire someone with a background in Ethnic Studies, but just…note that Jane Kim, Board of Education President, majored in Ethnic Studies.”

Personally, as someone who grew up within the San Francisco public school system, I feel that taking Ethnic Studies can be an eye opening experience. I was lucky enough to be exposed to some Ethnic Studies concepts as a teenager. As a middle school student, I took a class called “Issues and Choices,” a class where things that normally went unsaid were brought out in the open and turned on their heads – in other words, Ethnic Studies under another name! We discussed race, how others saw us, and its impact on our everyday lives. That class completely changed my outlook on life. Had more of my fellow students been able to take it and been exposed to these untold stories, they all would have benefited.

Next year’s freshmen class in San Francisco is a fortunate bunch. They will have the opportunity to learn more about themselves and learn a more relevant history than the ones taught in any other high school class. They will study people who look like them and have shared experiences. And last but not least, they will have the chance to share their own ethnic histories and learn about each other. Get ready San Francisco, here comes the future generation of educated students!