Centaurus High students advocate for ethnic studies class

A group of Lafayette students first proposed an ethnic studies class as seventh graders, but didn’t have enough support to make the class happen.

Now juniors at Centaurus High, they said, their school experiences only increased their motivation to keep advocating.

“We never felt represented in our classes, and we always learned about the same people, who did not look like us,” said junior Andrea Montiel.

This year, their continued advocacy is paying off. They have support of both teachers and the district to create the new class, with a goal of offering it at Centaurus in spring 2023. Once it’s approved, it also would be an option for all district high schools.

“This year is finally the year,” said junior Isaiah Williams. “We’ve been working really hard on this. A lot of students of color are tired of not feeling valued or comfortable in their own school.”

He said having an ethnic studies class is important because, when students of color see their culture represented in class, it’s not usually in a positive light.

“It’s very important to learn about slavery, but when that’s all you learn about Black culture, only trauma, it gets very discouraging,” he said. “You need to talk about the joy and the achievements.”

The students began developing the class as a project through the University of Colorado Boulder’s Public Achievement program. Both Centaurus and Angevine Middle students in the AVID — Advancement Via Individual Determination — program work with Public Achievement. With CU Boulder undergraduates as coaches, students develop projects on school and community issues, including immigration, racism and education equity.

While Boulder High offers an elective race relations class that focuses on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its impacts on modern day race relations, no schools offer a more general ethnic studies class. The district created the race relations class in partnership with Impact on Education’s AT LAST — Alliance to Teach the Legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade — project.

For the ethnic studies class, the students said, they’re looking for an inclusive class that  represents different identities, histories and cultures and includes LGBTQ perspectives.

Lynn Gershman, Boulder Valley’s academic services director, is helping guide the students through the course development and approval process. The district didn’t accept applications for new classes during the pandemic, she said, but will reopen the process in the fall.

She said creating the new class first requires determining which state social standards the class will target. Next is deciding what assessments will look like, from exams to projects to a menu of assessment options. Finally, units of study will be created.

To create the units of study, she said, she and others will work with the students to identify what they want to include.

“It could be materials, films, music, experiences — it’s really wide open as long as we are moving toward the course goals,” she said. “We don’t necessarily need them to write the course, but we want it to include their ideas. This is their course.”

She added she’s excited to start working on the course development.

“I’m really, really proud of this group,” she said. “They are exactly the kind of student advocates who make being an educator such a wonderful thing.”

For examples, the students looked at ethnic studies classes in California, which in 2021 passed a law requiring the course for high school graduation.

They said they want the class to include information on traditions, hairstyles, clothing, food, dance, music, history and “anything else that makes these cultures unique.” Just as important, they added, is the classroom environment. They want pictures and posters of prominent historical figures and change-makers of color, cultural artwork, music from different cultures and desks in a circle to make conversations easier.

“We want to have students share their stories,” junior Ann Spence said. “It’s all about inclusivity for everybody.”

The students said benefits of the class include improving student engagement and graduation rates, creating supportive learning environments for underrepresented students, helping students value their own cultural identity while appreciating differences, and fostering cross-cultural understanding among students of color and white students.

“Racism will keep perpetuating until we put a stop to it,” junior Lili Contreras said.

While they said they wish the class was offered sooner, they’re optimistic their work will benefit the students who come after them — and want to see the school and district will continue to support the class long after they’ve graduated.

“This class is so important and so valuable,” Williams said. “It’s not necessarily a want, but a need.”

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