The Palo Alto Unified School District is moving to adopt an ethnic studies graduation requirement starting with the Class of 2029.
The district staff asked the school board on Tuesday night, Sept. 12, for direction on which class to start requiring the course for graduation — 2028, 2029 or 2030.
The board favored going with the Class of 2029, or students who currently are in seventh grade, because according to the board that gives the district good enough time to prepare implementing ethnic studies as a stipulation for graduation.
“I would like this to happen as soon as possible,” board Vice President Jesse Ladomirak said. “But I don’t feel it’s my job to second-guess what the experts are telling us they need to do this well.”
Nicole Chiu-Wang, speaking as co-president of the Palo Alto Chinese Parents Club, wants to see the requirement in place sooner than later.
“Every year that we wait we’re depriving our students of the opportunity to better understand the world they live in,” Chiu-Wang told the board. “Requiring ethnic studies for all our high school students is an important step toward addressing racism in our schools. So please, let’s not delay.”
The board is expected to approve the new graduation requirement at its Oct. 10 meeting.
District leaders recognize that “our younger generation appreciates diversity,” Palo Alto Unified spokesperson George Pinckney said. “Understanding different backgrounds tends to help people appreciate differences.”
The district, which currently offers ethnic studies as a one-semester elective course, would still be ahead of the state’s timeline for high schools to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement.
In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into state law Assembly Bill 101, which mandates that all public high schools — including charters — offer ethnic studies commencing with the 2025–26 academic year. The bill also requires students to finish one semester of the course to be able to graduate. This condition for graduation must take effect starting with students completing high school in 2030.
Students could meet the requirement in various ways, which include taking an existing ethnic studies course or one that is approved within some other curriculum.
Another possibility is by taking a course based on the State Department of Education’s ethnic studies model curriculum, which is a comprehensive guide for schools on how to teach and integrate the subject in their academic framework.
The state leaves the specifics of what is taught in ethnic studies up to the local schools. The course would introduce high schoolers to concepts that they otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to study until college.
In response to AB 101, Palo Alto Unified formed the Ethnic Studies Committee, involving social science teachers, instructional leads and administrators, to explore how the district would incorporate the course as a graduation requirement, among other issues.
Nearby, the Mountain View Los Altos Union district has already approved ethnic studies as a graduation requirement starting this school year with its ninth-graders.
The Education Department describes ethnic studies as the interdisciplinary examination of race and ethnicity with a focus on the experiences of people of color in the United States. Among the many themes and topics that this curriculum can cover are a study of Mexican American texts, the implications of imperialism on Southeast Asian war refugees and African American social movements.
Enacting ethnic studies in high schools, however, has met with controversies. Some Jewish groups criticized the state’s effort as emphasizing Palestinian oppression while minimizing the Holocaust.
Other groups felt excluded in the ethnic-studies material that the state was developing. Still others have criticized the state’s model curriculum as racially divisive, counter to the notion that studying other cultures fosters unity.
Earlier this year, the nonprofit law firm Deborah Project filed lawsuits against Mountain View Los Altos Union and Hayward Unified, seeking public documents related to the districts’ ethnic-studies program. The firm, which represents Jewish students in civil-rights cases, is looking for information that could express antisemitic teaching.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin sought to distance the district from the controversies.
“What’s really important for everyone to hear is that controversy is around some elements of the model curriculum,” Austin said. “We are not adopting that. We are taking our existing course. We are modifying (and) beefing it up, but we’re also going out to specifically speak with groups that have found exceptions to pieces of the model curriculum.”
Ethnic studies took root during the civil-rights era of the 1960s as Black students at what is now San Francisco State University pushed for coursework that recognized African American history. This push culminated in a student strike in 1968 that called for equal access to public education, an increase in instructors of color and a curriculum embracing the histories of ethnic minorities.
In 1969, San Francisco State established the first college of ethnic studies while University of California leaders approved a department at UC Berkeley focused on that field.
Intervention regarding student behavior
At last night's meeting the Board of Education also received an update on the district’s efforts to strengthen its program related to student behavior.
Since last school year, the district has been working to bolster the program amid a rise in behavioral issues among students, especially after they returned to campus following the peak of pandemic. But the district sped up that work after a special-needs student attacked two teachers at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in May.
The district has brought in 12 new behavior-intervention specialists. Each school has a dedicated specialist to help address behavioral concerns involving both general- and special-education students. The experts will also provide support to teachers and staff in this regard.
The district will also hold monthly de-escalation training, in which faculty and administrators will work on skills to prevent, minimize and manage student behavioral challenges.