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Could an Ethnic Studies Class Bridge a Cultural Divide Among Austin ISD Students?

Mengwen Cao
Students and teachers participate in the after school program at the Pecan Springs Elementary in 2014.

School’s out, but the Austin School Board is already thinking about classes next fall. The board wants to talk about adding an ethnic studies course in the district, and some school board members want to make the class a graduation requirement.

Seventy-five percent of kids in Austin Public Schools are students of color, and Austin School Board Vice President Paul Saldaña says that means students should be learning about people who look like them.

“I firmly believe that it gives our students an academic identity by being able to talk about their heritage, their cultural heritage,” Saldaña says.

To do that, he wants to create a class that would focus on the experience of African-Americans, Latinos, Asian and Native American communities. It would also explore gender and sexual orientation. Saldaña and Trustee Ted Gordon submitted a request to the school district to study an ethnic studies course that would be required to graduate high school, which would require a board policy change and approval from the Texas Education Agency. At minimum, Saldaña says the district could make it an elective.

“It’s my understanding that we would be able to accomplish that by looking at social studies curriculum that is offered across the board throughout the district,” he says.

Creating an elective would only require superintendent approval. The district could make it a "Special Topic in Social Studies" or "Social Studies Advanced Studies" course, create a course with a partner in higher education, or develop and innovate course themselves – that would require TEA approval.

But, as the district changes the name of its Robert E. Lee Elementary, Saldaña says an ethnic studies course could be a way to both make these issues a learning opportunity and foster conversations among students.

“I think our students are resilient,” he says. “And, if we’re going to continue having conversations about potential school name changes, for example, with other schools, I think it gives students a better understanding of the position, the background, the cultural heritage of their classmates.”

The Austin School Board could discuss the ethnic studies course as soon as August.

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