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Providing perspective: Ethnic Studies course to be a requirement


Senior Class President Mathew Signorello-Katz recalls a video he viewed on his first or second day in his Ethnic Studies class.

“In this video that we were being shown, they were talking about housing, specifically the implementation of affordable housing, and how you have these people who … say they’re progressive … but when it comes to changes in their own town in making the town more accessible for others who maybe don’t have such high levels of income, that progressivism and that acceptance suddenly rids itself,” Signorello-Katz said.

Discussions on eye-opening topics such as these, and their manifestations in our local community, are a major component of the one-semester Ethnic Studies class at Palo Alto High School, which, in a few years, will be required for all California high school students.

AB 101 Bill — What is it?

The October ratification of Assembly Bill No. 101 will stipulate students, beginning with the Class of 2030 (current fourth-graders), to take a one-semester Ethnic Studies course to graduate.

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The Ethnic Studies course examines history from various untraditional perspectives and explores the controversy of diversity in the United States. Through a discussion-based format, students examine global topics — such as cultural appropriation and its relation to socioeconomic factors in the country — and other local issues — such as Palo Alto’s equity gap due to the movement against affordable housing. 

“My goal is to offer perspective for people to then come to their own conclusions on what’s happening with our country, what pieces are missing in history,” Ethnic Studies teacher Justin Cronin said.

The course has been offered as a one-semester social science elective at Paly for many years, but only enough students sign up each year to fill, at maximum, one class period each semester, according to Cronin.

“I think I’ve learned how to examine history with a more holistic lens, to see how intertwined different societal boundaries are.”

— Eden Ball, senior

Some current Ethnic Studies students, such as Signorello-Katz, view the new bill as an improvement to the standard American education curriculum.

“It’s [AB 101] a step in the right direction after America, having taught a history curriculum that focused mainly on American Exceptionalism, has begun to realize the faults in the ways America sees and examines its own history,” Signorello-Katz said.

Senior Saam Mohsenian also expresses a positive view of the legislation, highlighting the recognition brought to the significance of Ethnic Studies.

“It’s pretty interesting and cool in my opinion how they [California government] made it [Ethnic Studies] a requirement,” Mohsenian said. “It shows the versatility of the class and why they think it’s important for students to take.”

Future of Ethnic Studies

Students such as senior Eden Ball believe that requiring the Ethnic Studies class for graduation would benefit future students.

“I absolutely think Ethnic studies should be a requirement,” Ball said. “It is extremely unique when compared to my other required history classes in that there is an effort made to bring recognition to topics on power dynamics that our country tends to gloss over.”

Over her time in the Ethnic Studies class so far, Ball said it has already altered her view of history.

“I think I’ve learned to examine history with a more holistic lens, to see how intertwined different societal boundaries are,” Ball said.

“It’s [AB 101] a step in the right direction after America … has begun to realize the faults in the ways America sees and examines its own history.”

— Mathew Signorello-Katz, senior

However, Cronin said he has mixed feelings about the course becoming a requisite.

“The nice thing now is that people in the class want to be there, they want to grow, they want to expand their perspective on experiences,” Cronin said. “Once you make it [the class] a requirement, you lose some of that dynamic.”

While details concerning changes to the course in future are still uncertain, Social Studies department head Mary Sano said the introduction of an Ethnic Studies requirement could complicate the sequence of social studies courses Paly students take.

“What’s been talked about is making it [Ethnic Studies] a …  ninth or tenth [grade] requirement … it would shift everything [potentially social studies requirements and electives within the department],” Sano said. 

Currently, students have one free semester in their senior year to take social studies electives like U.S. Foreign Policy, AP Macroeconomics and Sociology. With another required single-semester course, the future of these courses remains uncertain.

In light of the new requisite, Cronin and Sano are awaiting the changes that are to come within the Social Studies department over the next few years.

“We’ve been running it [Ethnic Studies] for … six, seven years, so we’re very proud of that here,” Sano said. “We definitely are invested in what is supposed to happen next.”