Category Archives: Ethnic Studies

Ethnic Studies Now!: Seattle students ask, “Why aren’t we learning this in school?”

By Jesse Hagopian

First published by The Progressive magazine.

From disproportionate discipline rates to its hyper-segregated schools, Seattle is a tough place to be for students of color. The city has an alarming pattern of segregation both between and within schools, and when the district was investigated by the Department of Education, it was found to suspend black students at four times the rate for white students for the same infractions.

In response, the NAACP, in collaboration with numerous education and social justice organizations, has launched a new ethnic studies campaign. “We have to get rid of this white supremacy,” Seattle NAACP Education Chair Rita Green told the Seattle Times in January. “Ethnic studies is learning about the other cultures within your building.”

The benefits of ethnic studies programs are numerous.


A recent study of San Francisco students conducted by researchers in the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that attendance increased by twenty-one percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points and credits earned by twenty-three. There were positive effects across male, female, Asian and Hispanic groups of students, and especially for boys and Hispanic students. The study also found significant effects on GPA specific to math and science.

As Jon Greenberg, Seattle social studies teacher, member of Social Equality Educators, and a leading organizer in the ethnic studies campaign recently told NPR, “The level of engagement goes up astronomically when you’re talking about issues that affect a lot of students’ lives.”

And benefits of ethnic studies go far beyond academics. Many of the discipline problems in the classroom stem from students who are disengaged with the curriculum and don’t see a connection to their lives. These students often act out and are quickly labeled disobedient—but maybe that disobedience is better understood as resistance to a whitewashed curriculum that doesn’t speak to the problems and issues those students face. As one student testified at a recent school board meeting, “Europeans did not ‘discover’ the land, they stole it from the indigenous natives that were enslaved and killed by white settlers.” When basic truths like these are disguised in a curriculum, students learn to not trust their education.

Ethnic studies programs, coupled with restorative justice approaches to discipline, can reduce suspension rates and help students realize their potential. By teaching students about the history of systemic oppression and the struggles against it, such programs can empower students to become change agents in their schools and broader society.


The social and academic benefits of ethnic studies were on full display in the acclaimed Mexican American Studies program at Tucson High Magnet School in Arizona, which boasted the highest graduation rates and college acceptance rates for Latino students in the district. It was shut down in 2010 by anti-immigrant Republicans who sought to deny Latino students access to information about their heritage. The educators and students of the MAS program launched an inspiring campaign to defend their community and curriculum—as documented in the excellent film “Precious Knowledge”—resulting, ironically in a blossoming of Mexican American studies programs in high schools across the country.

After a major campaign, a bill was signed into law in California in September 2016 ordering the creation of a model ethnic studies course for state high schools. The Portland school board voted in May 2016 to require high schools in that city to offer ethnic studies classes by 2018. In the 2014-15 school year, a group of teacher librarians in the San Francisco Unified School District created a Black Lives Matter online resource page for teachers to use in the classroom. This collection includes grand jury documents, poetry, videos and graphics, readings, and lesson plans and activities for students of all ages.


The push in Seattle to combat institutional racism in the schools erupted in Seattle with the unprecedented #BlackLivesMatterAtSchool day, organized by the Social Equality Educators and supported by the Seattle Education Association, on October 19th, 2016. Some 3,000 educators wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts to school and many taught lessons about structural racism, the history of struggles against white supremacy, and other ethnic studies curriculum. Since Seattle’s mass action, the Black Lives Matter At School movement has gone national with educators in Philadelphia and Rochester, New York, taking up similar actions to publicly declare the value of their black students.

At a Seattle School board meeting on March 15, dozens of educators, parents, students, and community members rallied to support ethnic studies, with signs reading, “Tell the Youth the Truth,” and “White Privilege is Your History Being Part of the Core Curriculum and Mine Being Taught as an Elective.”

One young Asian American woman recounted a program she participated in called “Seattle to Selma,” designed to augment the standard curriculum to give students a deeper understanding of the black freedom struggle. “One of the critical questions students kept asking,” she told the school board, “is why aren’t we learning this in school?” Raising her voice she continued,

All students—if given the chance—can benefit socially and academically if their scope of racial and civil rights history is expanded. When research has proven ethnic studies increases achievement, attendance, the number of credits students of color take, why wait to close Seattle’s unacceptable racial disparities? With ethnic studies, students at all levels learn not to blame individuals, but understand societal structures. Students learn to effectively navigate difference and understand the diverse cultures of our district. Seattle Schools can fundamentally affirm and empower more students to become agents of change.

May her words signal a new ethnic studies uprising to help combat misunderstanding, fear, and hate in our schools and in our society.

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Jesse Hagopian is a teacher in the Seattle Public Schools, editor of the book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, and an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine.  He serves as the Seattle Education Fellow for The Progressive magazine and runs the Black Education Matter’s Student Activist Award. Follow Jesse on twitter or on his blog,  www.IAmAnEducator.com.

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