OLYMPIA — The Washington State Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to adopt a resolution to establish a statewide ethnic studies graduation requirement.
Proponents say ethnic studies teaches more than just history and racial justice. It’s a framework that allows participants from multiple cultures to share their perspectives, achievements, traditions and experiences. It is designed to help eradicate fear, structural racism and social inequities by promoting knowledge and understanding.
Resolutions are nonbinding agreements that move the Board toward adopting a policy, and this one does not detail when an ethnic studies graduation requirement would go into effect. But it has some teeth: As part of the resolution, Board representatives and staff members will take ethnic studies and anti-racist training in the form of nine two-hour Friday sessions between April and August, to be led by the local nonprofit Washington Ethnic Studies Now.
Before the vote, Margarita Amezcua, an Auburn Riverside High School senior and the Western Washington student delegate to the Board, described why the decision was so important to her.
When she first began working with the committee to draft the resolution, she said her goal was to get adults to know and understand why ethnic studies is critical for students and teachers to learn. About half of Washington’s K-12 students are not white, yet nearly 87% of their teachers are, according to current public school enrollment and demographic data.
“In classrooms, we’re told to find the answers to the history of our people on our own,” said Amezcua, who identifies as Mexican. “We’re given quizzical looks or frustrated sighs when we ask about our stories, our battles. There’s no empathy in classes that too often hold an environment of indifference and ignorance to the abundance of richness of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) culture.”
Amezcua said students often are shown “so many horrible images of our people being slaughtered in mass numbers with the narrative that we are less than our white counterparts. … Students are beyond tired for fighting for the right to be counted just as our peers are.”
Executive Director Randy Spaulding described the resolution’s adoption as the beginning of a lengthy process to create an ethnic studies policy. “The Board is walking the walk here,” he said, and it will do “the same training that we’re asking the educators to do.”
The Board has tasked itself with drafting the new ethnic studies graduation requirement to fit within the existing credit framework by December. The work is to be done in consultation with students, families and educators, particularly those who identify as BIPOC, including those who identify as American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, Latino, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, North African or more than one race.
In 2019, lawmakers required the state’s education officials to develop ethnic studies materials and encouraged districts to use them in grades 7-12; a 2020 law extended this to lower grades, down to kindergarten.
The state’s public instruction office established an Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee upon the adoption of the 2019 law. The 45-member group continues to meet on a regular basis but is still trying to figure out how to get all districts to successfully bring ethnic studies into schools in a meaningful way.
The rate at which teachers and schools have adopted and implemented ethnic studies and anti-racist curricula varies from well-established to nonexistent.
Washington Ethnic Studies Now Executive Director Tracy Castro-Gill says one of the challenges is that there’s no formal credentialing process to ensure educators are trained and know how to appropriately integrate an ethnic studies curriculum. That, they said, requires a paradigm shift.
“I feel like the infrastructure is all there, but imagine a construction site where all of the pieces are miles away from each other; that’s what it feels like,” Castro-Gill said.
Castro-Gill said they hope that the Board of Education and Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee take the time to listen to teachers and students who already embrace ethnic studies on their own and invite them to help lead the drafting of a curriculum and the new graduation requirement.
“Culture is dynamic and it’s defined by the people who are currently experiencing it. Culture changes,” Castro-Gill said. “A lot of times, when I talk to elementary school educators especially, they say, ‘Well I don’t know all these different cultures. How am I supposed to teach it to my children?’ And I’ll say that you don’t. They teach each other. They teach you. They tell you what their culture is. That’s why I think it’s important to keep students front and center in these processes. They are defining culture.”
After the Board adopted the resolution, its members applauded on their virtual screens. Amezcua pumped a fist into the air, appeared to wipe a tear from the corner of her eye and mouthed the words “thank you.”