Can ethnic studies classes at Sacramento high schools curb gang violence?

One of Sacramento’s best assets is its diversity. The metro area is consistently recognized as one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation. Last year, the UCLA Civil Rights Project praised Sacramento for having the most integrated school districts in the state. It’s a point of civic pride.

It can be a source of friction, too, says Saraith Aspiro, a senior at Luther Burbank High School. She says there’s too much race-based violence on campus. “It’s has been a problem at my school for years,” Aspiro says.

Which is why Aspiro and other student representatives in the Sacramento City Unified School District are asking for ethnic studies to be taught in Sac City high schools, and eventually made into a graduation requirement.

Sacramento teachers, academics and community groups are joining the effort. Supporters argue the classes promote greater understanding among student groups, boost academic achievement and even help reduce campus violence.

This month and next, they will be asking the Sac City school board for its support. If the idea moves forward, Sacramento would join Los Angeles and San Francisco, other big, urban school districts that require the classes. The trick is figuring out where this new curriculum would fit into Sac City high-schoolers’ packed schedules, and the already long list of state and district requirements.

Aspiro represents Luther Burbank High School on the districtwide Student Advisory Council. Late last year, the SAC surveyed fellow students, asking what problems they thought needed fixing.

About a thousand students responded, with a long list of concerns, including drugs and alcohol, dress codes that don’t apply equally to boys and girls and unequal access to technology among schools. One of the biggest issues was gangs and violence on campus.

“We had already seen some research showing that ethnic studies classes reduced gang violence,” explained Aspiro. At the same time, the SAC held focus groups and learned that many students see a “lack of culturally relevant content” in their classes. So the SAC hit upon ethnic studies as a possible solution.

In the last couple of years, there has been growing interest in ethnic studies in California and elsewhere. A recent review of education research by the National Education Association found there are academic and social benefits to both white students and students of color from ethnic-studies classes.

“Marginalized students tend to do well in these courses, and it increases their grades and test scores in other courses,” says Dr. Dale Allender, a professor at Sacramento State’s college of education.

Allender is part of the Sacramento chapter of a group calling itself Ethnic Studies Now Coalition, which has been pushing for these classes in school districts around the state.

In Los Angeles all high schools will be required to offer ethnic studies by the 2017-18 school year, and ethnic studies will be a graduation requirement in the year after that.

In San Francisco, school officials say an ethnic studies pilot program boosted grades for participating students and cut absences. Next year, all S.F. high schools will offer ethnic studies courses and it is expected to be a graduation requirement within five years.

Meanwhile, legislation requiring ethnic studies classes is also moving forward in the California state Legislature. Assembly Bill 101 would require California’s superintendent of public instruction to develop a model ethnic studies curriculum and require all school districts to offer ethnic studies as an elective. The bill passed the Assembly education committee last week.

According to Sac City school district officials, American Legion High School currently offers ethnic studies as an elective. C.K. McClatchy High School also offers ethnic studies. But teachers there say the class has struggled to attract students. That may be because it isn’t required and it isn’t part of the curriculum for any of McClatchy’s many specialized academic programs.

Ethnic studies courses may not satisfy the A-G requirements set forth by University of California and California State University. Then there’s the tight schedule of classes imposed by many of the district’s small learning communities and special programs. Aspiro says she probably couldn’t take ethnic studies and satisfy the other requirements of the International Baccalaureate program she does at Burbank.

And adding ethnic studies may increase costs for the district, to the extent that it requires hiring new teachers with training in the subject. “The other consideration is that adding anything to graduation requirements is the possibility of reducing opportunities for elective offerings for kids,” says district spokesman Gabe Ross.

“It’s a great idea, but where are we going to put it,” concedes Mark Carnero, district adviser to the Student Advisory Council. But Carnero says that students see too much “turmoil and dysfunction” based on race and ethnic friction. If ethnic studies can help, “I definitely think it’s worth trying to figure it out.”