Class Action: South San Francisco High School Expands Ethnic Studies

“Everyone brought their tree of life, yes?”

Aristel de la Cruz’s ethnics studies class is just getting started at South San Francisco High School. Today his students are sharing a project called “tree of life.”

“The roots are like the values or things that sort of ground them as a person,” Mr. de la Cruz explains. “So a lot of students wrote family or love or hope.”

They also write about topics like race, violence and sexuality.

Ninth grader Karlie Orellana says, “The projects we’ve been doing so far kind of gets you closer and like gets [sic] to know more about the people around you. You figure out that not everybody’s the same.”

And that’s the crux of the class - the idea everyone’s not the same. Ethnic studies is a semester-long examination of identity.

Mr. de la Cruz covers topics like the challenges facing immigrants. He asks the class: “If you’re an immigrant, is it hard to come here right away? Yes? Maybe?”

After a brief back and forth between teacher and students, Mr. de la Cruz lists off the challenges facing immigrants: “Racism, language barriers, learning the culture,” he says.

Not everyone agrees with the concept behind ethnic studies.

“I’d prefer to consider us all Americans,” says Jerry Mungai, president of the Conservative Forum of Silicon Valley.

Mungai opposes ethnic studies because he says it draws attention to ethnic identity.

“Our nation was founded on principles of freedom and individual liberty and we are a meritorious society,” he says. “We really don’t care really your ethnic background. We just want to know what can you do for us, for our society at large.”

Mungai is not unique in his opposition to ethnic studies. In Tucson, Mexican-American studies was banned in 2011 amid vocal protests by high school students.

While the classes at South San Francisco High School haven’t generated heated debate here, the students and teacher know they’re on the front lines.

Mr. de la Cruz tells his students: “Every human being knows how to adapt right? That’s part of being a human.”

Ethnic studies at South San Francisco High School is an elective. There is one school in Southern California, El Ranch High School in Pico Rivera, that will soon require ethnic studies for graduation.

There have been several efforts in Sacramento to look at a statewide ethnic studies curriculum but they haven’t gotten very far.

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