Tucson Ethnic studiesJswood-p1:: Tucson Magnet High School senior Evon Moreira,EVON MOREIRA, CQ, 17, middle with Honk sign, protests with fellow students and faculty(in front of her high school), a law that would ban Mexican American studies and other ethnic study programs at Tucson Unified School District schools, Thursday May 6, 2010 in Tucson, Ariz. The law is waiting for the signature of Arizona's Governor Jan Brewer, JAN BREWER, CQ.
5-6-10 Photo by James S. Wood

Ethnic studies has been around for over a century. Black studies, Chicano studies, cultural studies, multicultural studies—the name may have changed over the years, but a rose by any other name can still be a lightning rod for controversy. A new study linking ethnic studies to measurable student gains has sparked some interest in how to scale up such programs. While research finds ethnic studies works for some students, scholars in the field urge it’s good for all students—and the battle over ethnic studies rages on.

Indeed, today, school leaders and student activists, in communities of all sizes, are embracing ethnic-studies courses as a way to expand and diversify classroom content. Earlier this year members of the Providence Student Union, a youth-led organizing group, kicked off a new campaign advocating for ethnic studies for all high-school students. In making their case, student leaders called attention to the glaring disparity between the city’s public-school curriculum and the students it teaches; 90 percent of those enrolled in Providence schools are students of color. The student union’s review of a nearly 2,000-page history textbook found that less than 5 percent of the book was devoted to the contributions of people of color. “I’m Nigerian. I’m Muslim. I’m also an American,” the high-school student Latifat Odetunde told The Providence Journal, noting stories like his are what history books “leave out.”

But both Brooks and Charles state that this shift in knowledge and understanding is equally important for white students. Ethnic-studies courses dispel myths, Brooks said, and build connections among students as opposed to divisions. “Similar to students of color, white students have been miseducated about the roles of both whites and people of color throughout history,” she said, and culturally relevant lessons allow white children to “not only learn about people of color, but also white people’s roles as oppressors and activists fighting for racial change. This is very important because often whites feel there is nothing [they] can do to change racism.”

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(Photo: NYU Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies) 

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Two new reports on school integration were published this month. “Socioeconomic School Integration has More Than Doubled and Millions of Students Stand to Benefit” was the headline on the press release. True. And. Efforts to make racially and socioeconomically diverse schools a reality have ultimately lagged. While more districts are rightly opting for diverse schools, others continue to face resistance. The promise of integrated schools is far from fulfilled.

“If you successfully bring these resources to high-poverty schools, it is possible to produce strong results for kids—and we know examples of excellent high-poverty schools that are doing that,” Potter said. “But these successful high-poverty schools are sadly still the outliers,” she stated, stressing that the majority of education reform strategies “focus on this long shot … rather than pursuing integration to break up the concentrations of poverty that we know are so harmful for kids.”

The most common method listed by districts to achieve this integration was redrawing neighborhood school boundaries, a controversial approach that is often accompanied by public outcry. But the researchers, while conceding the politically contentious nature of school-boundary decisions, admittedly offer scarce guidance to help school leaders that are considering changing attendance zones. Much of the pushback, like school segregation, cuts along racial and class lines. One illustration of the inherent challenges is seen in New York City, where parents on the Upper West Side and in the neighboring borough of Brooklyn opposed recent school boundary changes that would bring racial and socioeconomic integration.

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