With two unanimous votes at their last meeting, Los Alamitos Unified School District Board of Education trustees approved coursework for a high school ethnic studies elective saying the course is a response to what students requested one year ago and was developed through a rigorous process led by experienced district staff to fit the community.
The ethnic studies curriculum was approved during the June 1 virtual meeting that included the reading of 73 public comments by board members and Supt. Dr. Andrew Pulver. While the number of comments for or against approval was roughly even, a few comments referenced retaliation for adopting the coursework.
“If you do proceed with this we will do everything possible to stop this. You will be voted out of your positions never to be in office again,” read one comment. “We are infuriated and will throw all of you out if this continues on,” read another. A group is looking to recall some trustees, according to LAUSD parent David Ryst, who said he’s involved in the nascent effort and is also considering running for the board.
The Orange County Registrar of Voters office, which oversees local elections, said it has not received any recall paperwork related to Los Al board members.
The June 1 meeting was the second meeting in a row LAUSD held online due to safety concerns. At the meeting, Board President Marlys Davidson explained that people from all sides of the spectrum had contacted the district with worries about the safety of meeting attendees. “The police advised us that the best way to keep people safe was to go virtual and that was why we made the decision,” Davidson said.
Via ZOOM, board members considered the proposed coursework for an already approved ethnic studies elective due to be offered next year for juniors and seniors at Los Alamitos High School. The coursework has been on public preview since April 27.
A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki will serve as the “core text” for the class supplemented with other materials including primary source documents like the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, articles and documentary videos. The list of materials and an overview of the eight-unit course for 11th and 12th graders is viewable on LosAl.org. According to the overview, the intent of the course is “to expand students’ awareness of the role of ethnic groups in a diverse American society in order to build community and solidarity across various groups and differences.”
During discussion about the core text, board member Meg Cutuli noted the final chapter of A Different Mirror, entitled “We Will All Be Minorities” would serve as the first chapter read by students in the course, a decision she praised.
“It doesn’t put anybody up, it doesn’t put anyone down. It just says we have all contributed … together we are stronger,” Cutuli said of the chapter.
Davidson agreed. “That chapter going first sets a completely different tone,” she said noting anchor textbooks are used to promote discussion and are not always read in order from start to finish.
Praise, Criticism and Personal Stories in Public Comments
The tone of public comments read at the meeting ranged from high praise for LAUSD to intense criticism. Supporters lauded the board with one writing: “Thank you for your courage to be on the right side of history.” Some critics called for the board and Pulver to be removed with one opponent writing: “We do not trust you to do the right thing for our children.”
Other comments reflected personal stories to explain points of view.
A former LAUSD student wrote as a “brown body” in the district they would have liked to have had the ethnic studies class when they were at LAHS to help them understand their identity and to better deal with being called slurs by classmates.
“An ethnic studies course, though not a panacea, would have given me the tools to critically assess my own experiences and to contextualize how it fit into a broader American landscape,” the public comment read.
On the other side, a commenter who identified as an “American Mexican” warned of “unintended consequences” of teaching about topics such as the practice of excluding minorities from living in certain neighborhoods, which the commenter wrote their own ancestors experienced in Southern California.
“When children are taught that some people were treated differently because of the color of their skin it may bring about shame, embarrassment and/or additional bullying from newfound information,” they wrote.
Many opponents said the coursework represented critical race theory, an academic discipline that examines systemic racism. LAUSD has repeatedly said the ethnic studies class is not based on critical race theory.
The June 1 public comments echoed the remarks shared over the past several months at board meetings, including at the last one on May 11 when the trustees adopted a framework of social justice standards meant to aid teachers and staff in their discussions about racism and intolerance.
Coursework ‘best fit’ for LAUSD Community
The board took two separate votes to adopt the coursework for the ethnic studies class: one for supplemental materials and one for the core textbook. Both ended 5-0 in favor of adoption. Prior to the votes, board members explained their thinking.
Board member Meg Cutuli read a statement before the vote that said, in part: “Students need to hear different and varying opinions. This course does all these things,” Cutuli said. She also mentioned the benefit of LAUSD having its own ethnic studies coursework as a bill to use ethnic studies curriculum from the State Board of Education for a mandated class makes its way through the legislature. “It’s a good idea to be ahead of the state,” Cutuli said. “This will serve our community well and it’s good we’re ahead in this course.”
Diana Hill said she had been asked by people to vote against the ethnic studies class or to table the vote. She explained the timeline of roughly the past year, dating back to the initial request for the course by students. Hill emphasized there was a back-and-forth between the public and the district to find the curriculum that matches the LAUSD community. She noted some people wanted the course to be a graduation requirement but said the district decided to keep the elective optional.
“What we’ve done is we’ve developed with all of that input what would best fit this community. And I just think that some people came maybe late to the party and didn’t know all that has been done for that,” Hill said and added the course is still “a work-in-progress” and there will be updates to it. Trustee Chris Forehan said he thinks teachers will bring important discussions to life with these materials. “I truly believe that these classroom discussions … will be closely monitored by our extremely competent staff and I believe these discussions will also celebrate the contributions of all Americans regardless of their ethnic background. They will demean no one, and make a much-needed effort to end racism, bullying, and provide a safe environment for all our students.”
Board member Scott Fayette expressed his faith in LAUSD staff citing their “track record” of creating programs. He called the ethnic studies coursework version 1.0 and encouraged the public to “stay involved” and “stay aware to shepherd this process through.” He said it was important to move forward with the ethnic studies class “because the students are asking for this and that’s who we want the best for.”
President Davidson also specifically addressed how the ethnic studies curriculum was developed. As a former teacher and facilitator in LAUSD for 30 years, Davidson said “nobody does it better than this district” when it comes to course development. She outlined LAUSD’s multi-step process for creating, implementing, and revising curriculum that involves much debate and discussion between many different teachers and staff.
“I give my full support to what we are doing and this support … does not come just haphazardly or because it’s easier to OK something. It comes from months of research and hard work and discussion. So, I hope that you will realize that our community has called for this and we are responding to the needs of our students,” Davidson said.