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Board approves student-led plan to create ethnic studies curriculum in high schools

COURTESY PHOTO: APANO - Organizers at a rally before the May 3 board meeting that ended up approving a measure for ethnic studies classes at Portland Public Schools high schools.Screaming and applause followed the unanimous passage of a resolution to create and adopt an ethnic studies curriculum for every one of Portland Public Schools’ nine high schools. SCREENSHOT: PPS.NET - Organizers with the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon's ALLY student group testify at the May 3 board meeting in favor of an ethnic studies curriculum.

The effort begun by a student-led group of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon last October culminated in a May 3 vote of the school board.

APANO Lead Organizer Karn Saetang said that he feels like he would have been much more engaged in school if he had been learning about events relevant to his own culture.

"I wasn’t very successful in school because I didn’t like it,” Saetang said. "Part of the reason I didn't like it was ... the lens we learned it from was very Euro-centric.”

He argues that studies have shown students of all races can become more engaged in the classroom, leading to higher rates of attendance and graduation.

"I think we also know that this is not going to solve the racial equity problem in PPS, but we see this as a down payment of what the district can do," he said.

The “Missing Pages of Our History” campaign focused on the histories of the 45 percent of PPS students who are nonwhite.

School board members seemed to find great hope for the future in the effort, urging the organizers to consider careers in education, writing and politics.

School board Director Paul Anthony told the students to think ahead to the year 2032.

“2032 is going to be the first election when all of you are going to be eligible to run for governor,” Anthony said with emotion. “I want a button. I want a lawn sign. And I want to put you in Mahonia Hall.”

Director Julie Esparza Brown said growing up as a person of color, she didn’t see her own culture’s history in school either.

A more diversely informed curriculum is, Brown said, “what we need for everybody’s future, no matter the color of any student.”

Director Steve Buel felt the measure didn’t go far enough in that it was only providing curriculum at the high school level.

“That’s really nice, but we have 12 grades in our school,” Buel said, noting that U.S. History is even being taught in elementary schools.

Buel is on his second term on the school board, the first being during intense racial struggles in 1979, which culminated in a boycott by black students and their allies in 1982.

Director Mike Rosen said in the early 1980s, the superintendent then began attempts at culturally relevant curriculum, called Baseline Essays, but it encountered resistance from teachers. This time, he thinks it might be different.SCREENSHOT: PPS.NET - Board member Mike Rosen expresses his support for an ethnic studies curriculum at Portland Public Schools.

“It’s driven by the kids. They want this because they’re sick of learning about everyone else,” Rosen said, noting that the focus now turns to approving funding for professional development courses.

The new ethnic studies courses will open by fall 2018.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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