Residents say ethnic studies class, textbook give ‘voice to people of color’

Residents urge Visalia Unified School District to not only keep course but expand it to other high schools

VISALIA – Several residents spoke in defense of Visalia Unified’s ethnic studies class last week in response to previous public comments and news articles about the course and its textbook.

Colijia Feliz, a social worker who ran for school board in November, called the controversy surrounding the course “ridiculous” and said she supported the text book— “A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America,” by Ronald Takaki—because it gives a “voice to people of color.” Feliz said those who oppose the class do not represent the diverse opinion of the community and accused them of depriving youth a true picture of American history. If students are not allowed to take courses like the ethnic studies class, Feliz argues they will graduate not having a multicultural perspective and not knowing how to interact in diverse and multi-cultural settings and environment.

“The entire point of history is to try to prevent us from making the same mistakes over and over again,” Feliz said. “They need to be able to learn from the mistakes of this country.”

A relative, Fallon Feliz, said she is concerned her 7-year-old son will only be taught a short version of Black history including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barak Obama and little else. She said the book is the first step toward bringing an understanding to American history that isn’t taught in required history classes.

“There is so much more to our history than the edited versions of the text of our history,” she said. “My son deserves the facts of our history and not a fabricated truth based on white privilege.”

Sanisa Machado said she believed in full transparency, not matter how uncomfortable it might make people. She called the controversy over the class an “attempt at censorship” and ignores the work put in by students and parents who fought for the course to be offered in the district.

“Don’t let the fragility of others compromise the education of our youth,” Machado said.

Pedro Gonzalez, who has a master’s in multicultural and multilingual education, said the class will help foster an understanding of all people who form the imperfect, yet unfinished union of the United States. He said understanding is the only way to break out of the national discourse of an “us versus them mentality.” He concluded, “We have a social contract to take care of each other, and more importantly listen to each other. Students are learning they are more alike than they are different.”

The speakers were referring to Jerrold Jensen’s comments at the Jan. 12 school board meeting. Jensen has been critical of the course for being pushed through without community involvement and, more importantly, the textbook for failing to present students the idea that Americans have supported correcting the wrongs of previous generations in order to create equal opportunity, regardless of race, color or creed.

Visalia resident Mark Fulmer, a former VUSD employee who has spent an entire career in education, said the book was one-sided, something that could have been addressed with community input. He said the board did not follow its own policy when approving the course and materials. Under Board Policy 6161.1(a) “Selection and Evaluation of Instructional Materials,” the board must adopt instructional materials for grades 9-12 to meet requirements set by law or the Department of Education. The policy requires “substantial” participation by teachers and include participation of parents and community members and that feedback from teachers piloting the materials be made available to the board prior to voting on them.

“This class is not coming from education professionals, teachers and principals, or to meet a mandate, as in the case for sex ed or drug and alcohol awareness,” Fulmer said. “This process should have a lot of parent involvement and discussion.”

Ravalin argues the process for electives is different than graduation requirements or courses required by law. Ethnic studies was officially added for grades 7-12 on Feb. 12, 2018, the last time the district updated its Administrative Regulations 6143(a) on “Courses of Study”, and two years before the course was approved. The idea of an ethnic studies course originated in 2017 when the district was responding to claims of racial bias and discrimination on campuses. In an effort to give students a greater voice in the district, then Superintendent Todd Oto created the Inclusivity Task Forces. On May 20, 2019, representatives from each of the task forces jointly presented their recommendations to the school board on a variety of topics, including increasing multicultural activities by offering more inclusive curriculum for all grade levels, more events and activities promoting awareness of diverse cultures, a concerted effort to have more student clubs and mentoring, and social skill development.

“The task force is comprised of three groups, teachers, parents and students, all of which reviewed the course and the textbook prior to it going before the board,” Ravalin said.

Both Jensen and Fulmer argue board members were not aware of the course outline and textbook prior to formally adopting them at the July 28, 2020 meeting. They also noted the item was buried on page 237 of the agenda packet (Enclosure No. 19) during a pandemic when many felt isolated from public meetings. The item appeared on the agenda as “Grade 9-12 Proposal for Course Outline” and made no mention of the course title or ethnic studies. In an interview last week, Ravalin responded by saying all course outlines for elective courses read that way on the agenda as they are normally part of a series of new courses being offered during the following school year.

“This course is very broad and briefly covers different groups in America,” Ravalin said. “It doesn’t replace U.S. History or U.S. Government courses already required.”

Board member Walta Gamoian, now secretary of the board, said board members were made aware of the course outline and textbook prior to it being included in the July 8, 2020 board packet. Ravalin sent the course description, outline and name of the textbook to all seven board members in a July 13, 2020 email with the subject line: “Pilot—Course Outline for Ethnic Studies Class.” The email noted the course would come before the board at its July 28 meeting and sent another email on July 23 with a brief overview to remind the board of the upcoming item. Gamoian said she does have some concerns with the book but doesn’t question the need for an ethnic studies class.

“Part of the reason we approved this is that the kids really wanted it,” Gamoian said. “But it also approved with the understanding it was a pilot so we could take a look at it.”

Fulmer said the citizens of Visalia Unified have the right to discuss elective classes because they are not mandated and that every elective course comes before the board for approval. Anything local representatives have the sole authority to approve demands the opportunity for a discussion with their constituents.

“This is public education,” Fulmer said. “We aren’t even allowed to sneeze without first having a committee on it. In the past, superintendents have called together the community for courses that are far more and far less controversial than this.”

Positive images

The ethnic studies class is currently a pilot project at Redwood High School with two classes enroling a combined 65 students. Assistant Principal Jesus Gonzalez said the class has not been controversial and has largely received positive reviews from students and parents.

“The more understanding we have of others the more we understand about being a better citizen,” Gonzalez said. “The textbook is utilized as a base background for the students in the class, and is discussed with the students by the teacher.”

The class’ instructor, Jacob Huerta, said he was approached more than two years ago about teaching an ethnic studies class. Huerta said he likes teaching to a diverse student body at Redwood and had previously taught a multicultural class in another district. In addition to teaching the textbook, Huerta said he uses a variety of other online sources on ethnicity and sociology. For example, Huerta said he assigned students a Native American Google Jamboard where students could add pictures, paintings and drawings depicting positive images of Native Americans. Students also researched a California Native American tribe and produced a 12-slide Google Slide Show on their findings. He also assigned them to research their own family histories.

“I have learned so much about my students and their unique backgrounds,” Huerta said.

Sydney Saldana, a senior at Redwood, said the class taught her the difference between race, culture, and ethnicity, something she never understood from a history class. She said she would recommend the class to others because it addresses many groups of people who are briefly or vaguely included in U.S. history.

“This allows us, the students, to really get an insight of those that may be different from us, and how we must respect and understand them,” Saldana said. “Overall, this class has been very eye opening thus far and I await what we’ll learn next in every unit.”

Another student, senior Rocio Medina Diaz, said he learned some of his heritage is Native American and that many of his ancestors came from all over Europe.

“Taking this class has opened my eyes about other ethnicities and how we are connected,” Diaz said. “You discover the many similarities and differences we have with people of other ethnicities.”

Gonzalez said word of the class has spread to parents and students throughout the district who are now interested in taking the elective at their own high schools.

“We are building community and empathy. The more understanding we have of others the more we understand about being a better citizen,” Gonzalez said.

Diverse discussion

“Part of the reason the class was approved is because the kids really wanted it,” Gamoian said in an interview last week. “Now I want to hear from kids their reaction to the book but I’m not trying to get rid of the course.”

The board unanimously voted at its Jan. 12 board meeting to hold some type of forum on the matter at an upcoming board meeting, possibly by next month. Board member John Crabtree, who was president of the board when the course was approved, said the class was intentionally limited to one campus as a pilot program to gauge reaction from students, parents and community members. He also wants to know what type of lessons students are learning and how the text book is being balanced out with other instructional materials. He does have concerns the forum could create deeper divisions than already exist among community members.

“When people are angry, they don’t want to hear what’s going on,” Crabtree said. “There are a lot of good things going on and if all we get is people who are angry we aren’t going to be able to find common ground.”

Current board President Juan Guerrero, who was on the board throughout the ethnic studies discussion, called for staff to make the forum a study session so there is ample time to hear from all sides of the issue. He agrees the textbook could be overwhelmingly negative but said he would like to see additional instruction materials to balance out the information with positive examples of ethnic groups in American history.

“There have been great contributions from folks of all backgrounds,” Guerrero said. “If we can all sit down and work together we can create a better community.”

He recalled a situation under former Superintendent Stan Carrisoza where the district purchased Spanish GED textbooks that were word-for-word translations instead of being rewritten in proper Spanish. Guerrero said it became less of an issue after talking with the staff who had already found supplemental materials for the more technical aspects and understood that course outlines and textbooks are just education tools and that real education comes from educators.

“This is a real good time for a teachable moment,” Guerrero said.

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