Proposal to add ethnic studies stirs debate

Public commenters both in favor and against a proposed ethnic studies course turned out to an Oct. 5 meeting of the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District Board of Trustees to voice their views.

A group of MVLA alumni, students, teachers and community members presented the district with a petition in August, urging that a number of actions be taken to fight racism at local schools, including adding a mandatory ethnic studies course for freshmen. Dozens of speakers have attended meetings over the past few months in support of the petition.

On Oct. 5, speakers for the first time raised concerns at a board meeting about adding an ethnic studies course. The speakers argued that an ethnic studies curriculum being developed at the state level is divisive and anti-Semitic.

Those in support of the petition said they want the course to represent everyone, including Jewish students, and that given the prevalence of racism in local schools, ethnic studies is needed. They also said they weren’t seeking to adopt the state’s curriculum.

Four speakers brought forward concerns about the potential of adding an ethnic studies course. Mountain View High School junior Natalie Arbatman raised objections to the way the state’s draft model curriculum addresses Jewish people’s experiences.

“There’s no mention of anti-Semitism and violence directed at Jews as a form of bigotry whatsoever,” Arbatman said. “If implemented, this curriculum would threaten the safety and well-being of students like myself.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill last month that would have mandated an ethnic studies course as a high school graduation requirement. Although Newsom said he supported ethnic studies, he noted that the latest draft of a statewide model curriculum requires revision.

MVLA parent Lia Rensin argued that the model curriculum being debated at the state level was anti-Semitic and anti-American, and urged the district to move slowly.

“What this model curriculum has morphed into is a politically motivated set of preordained outcomes that sets our children up to move from one form of racism to another,” Rensin said.

Seven supporters of the petition, including a current student, alumni and teachers, pushed back on the objections and urged the district to adopt an ethnic studies course. They said the petition doesn’t advocate for using the state’s model curriculum.

“We don’t have anything anti-Semitic in the curriculum because we haven’t created one yet. We want that to be a community process, and that would ensure Jewish folks are included in building that curriculum,” said Sreoshi Sarkar, a 2020 Los Altos High School graduate. “It should not be political to have a truthful and … broad view of history that includes the experiences of everyone in the classroom.”

Jasmine Diarte, a 2015 Mountain View High grad, similarly said she wants the district to spend the next few years creating a course, adding that anti-Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism.

Kiyoshi Taylor, a 2015 Los Altos High grad, said people need to take time to read the full petition and understand that ethnic studies isn’t political or about dividing people.

“I’m sorry if it’s an uncomfortable conversation, but this country isn’t full of rainbows and sunshine, and neither is our district,” Taylor said, adding that he had been called the N-word by classmates. “You need ethnic studies to really understand where some of this hate is coming from.”

Also at the meeting, during a time before the public comment period set aside for union representatives to speak, teachers’ union president Dave Campbell said the union needs to be formally consulted before changes are made to courses or graduation requirements.

“I’m not saying this because I want the association to be a barrier for progress and growth in our district,” Campbell said. “Actually, quite the opposite: Personally, I am in favor of the creation of a comprehensive ethnic studies course, but this isn’t about what I think. It’s about what the 270 teachers I represent think, and I haven’t even been told to ask their opinion.”

Anti-bias training

Later on in the meeting, Superintendent Nellie Meyer gave a presentation on the existing board policy on equity and proposed that it be amended to add annual training for staff on topics including race, social justice, LGBTQ rights and anti-racist and anti-bias practices.

Meyer added that if the board approves moving forward with the staff training, she wants to have “strong conversations” about ethnic studies.

“We are not necessarily taking what has been created in Sacramento, because there are a lot of inherent flaws with that document,” Meyer said.

Based on the public comments earlier in the meeting, trustee Phil Faillace said he thinks the situation is similar to the debates over stadium lights, where involving interested parties from the beginning is crucial.

“It’s going to be necessary to involve people from the community in this process early on, and not wait until it’s all done and handed to us on a silver platter,” Faillace said. “We need to reach out to all the people who spoke tonight, and to all the others who might be interested from all the other communities.”

He added that clear goals should be set for an ethnic studies program, including making clear that everyone on campus is welcome and no one is singled out for bullying.

As for the staff recommendation to add regular equity training for staff, board president Sanjay Dave suggested that the subcommittee on board policy, made up of trustees Fiona Walter and Catherine Vonnegut, review the recommendation and bring it back at the next board meeting.

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