Thousands of high school students from Los Angeles, Calif., will benefit from a more diverse curriculum this year, thanks in large part to the efforts of Jose Lara, a social studies teacher at Santee Education Complex High School.
His labors led the school system to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
It started in 2013. As a school board member in El Rancho, he quickly worked to get a resolution passed to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement. The district is thought to be the first school system in the state to have made such a requisite. Now, the class of 2016 must take and pass an ethnic studies course before graduating.
With much success and support from the community, Lara formed the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition, which set out to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in Los Angeles, which it did in 2014.
Data from the California Department of Education shows that ethnic studies courses are offered at 19 out of 94 of its high schools. This means that only 691 out of a total of nearly 153,000 high school students are taking ethnic studies courses.
To date, more than five school districts have made ethnic studies a graduation requirement while 11 others have established a program or expanded an existing one.
Ninety percent of the students in LAUSD, which is the nation’s second largest, are students of color, and it’s been important for Lara to help bring those voices into the mainstream—ethnic studies help to do just that.
“Keeping students from learning about their own history is structural racism, and as educators we have the responsibility to do something about it,” he said. “Ethnic studies is what anti-racist education looks like in the classroom. It is the unforgotten stories of brilliance and resilience of women and men of color that has systematically been kept out of our classrooms.”
Ethnic studies have been shown to highlight more positive sense of self, which helps to increase student social engagement, as well as improve academic performance. Additionally, it offers all students an opportunity to learn about more diverse experiences and perspectives.
While some districts in California have added ethnic studies to its course offerings, Lara hopes districts nationwide will follow suit.
Lara was recently awarded NEA’s Social Justice Activist Award for his work in educational justice. The award is given to an NEA member who demonstrates the ability to lead, organize, and engage educators, parents, and the community to advocate on social justice issues that impact the lives of students, fellow educators, and the communities they serve.
For more information on how to start an ethnic studies program visit the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition website.