About 8 percent of Denver high school students this year took an ethnic studies course, such as African American History or Hispanic American Literature, district data show. Even fewer took a concurrent enrollment ethnic studies courses, in which students can earn college credit.
The district’s new administration wants to change that, especially for students of color, because it sees ethnic studies as a way to engage students and put them on track to graduate.
Increasing the number of students who take ethnic studies courses is part of Superintendent Susana Cordova’s “entry plan,” released shortly after she began the position in January.
Together, black and Latino students make up the majority of Denver Public Schools’ 25,200 high school students. But the district isn’t serving them as well as it’s serving white students. Black and Latino students are less likely to meet grade-level benchmarks on state reading and math tests, and less likely to graduate within four years of starting high school.
Ethnic studies courses could help close that gap, said Antonio Esquibel, the district’s executive director of college and career readiness. Research has shown culturally relevant courses can boost students’ attendance and grade-point averages.
“The more students of color are engaged in what they’re learning,” Esquibel said, “the more likely they’re going to succeed in that course, accumulate those credits, and graduate on time. That’s something we’re trying to push, to break patterns of inequity.”
Some Denver high schools offered multiple ethnic studies courses this year, some had just one or two, and others offered none. Using district data obtained through an open records request, Chalkbeat made a tool that shows which schools offer which courses, and allows for the comparison of up to four schools at once. Find it at the bottom of this story.
But even schools that don’t offer ethnic studies courses recognize the importance of culturally relevant lessons. For example, Denver’s largest charter school network, DSST, doesn’t have ethnic studies courses at its six high schools, but a spokesperson said the network includes culturally relevant books in its humanities courses and is rolling out a new social studies program that includes the perspectives of traditionally marginalized people.
Black and Latino students account for the majority — 81 percent — of the 2,215 Denver high school students enrolled in ethnic studies courses this year.
Aric Barber is one of them. The 18-year-old Thomas Jefferson High School senior is taking a concurrent enrollment African American history course taught at his school by a college professor. Before now, he said he didn’t know much about black history.
“In middle school and elementary, there were some bits and pieces about African Americans’ role in history, like W.E.B. Du Bois, but other than that, they never really elaborated on it,” said Barber, who identifies as black. “In this course, I’ve learned a lot more specifics.
“It’s really kind of inspiring to me,” he said, “that I could help do great things like they did back then, when they had even more limited access to information and rights.”
Whether or not a district-run high school offers an ethnic studies course depends first on student interest, Esquibel said. If not enough students sign up, the school can’t afford to run the class. One idea the district is exploring is to set up “hub” classrooms at certain schools that would allow interested students from other schools to take that class virtually, he said.
Finding teachers to teach ethnic studies can also be a challenge, especially for college-level courses that require the instructor to have a master’s degree in the subject. Those classes are often taught by college professors who travel to high schools, but the district recently launched a small-scale “mini master’s” program that allows high school teachers to take online courses to accumulate enough credits to qualify as an adjunct college faculty member.
Esperanza Soledad Garcia understands the supply-and-demand issue well. The 17-year-old South High School senior gathered 75 student signatures on a petition to convince South to offer a college-level Chicano/a literature course she and others are taking this semester.
Her school already had a Latin Student Alliance and Spanish classes for native speakers, but as someone who identifies as genízaro, a term for American Indians who historically lived among the Hispanic population in the southwest, she said she wasn’t learning anything about herself.
“We’re not hearing about the topics that should be talked about in the Latino-Chicano community,” Garcia said. “We need a space where we can talk about immigration, we can talk about our family, the different childhoods that we’ve had, and why it is these challenges keep being perpetuated through the ages. … I wanted to research the Chicano voice.”
On a recent day in her Survey of Chicano/a Literature class, the two instructors — one a South High teacher, the other a professor at Denver’s Metro State University — had the class read an op-ed by a conservative leader railing against a bill in the Colorado legislature to add the history and culture of Asian Americans to the groups already required to be part of civics lessons.
“As you read through, think about the question we’ve been posing today,” teacher Nick Childers asked: Does the author represent the center of society or the periphery?
“Clearly, this guy is in the center,” one boy said.
“He knows he has privilege,” a girl said.
“He’s mocking it,” said another girl, referring to the bill.
The op-ed had appeared in the Denver Post, the state’s largest newspaper. “For him to get this in the Denver Post means what?” professor Ramon Del Castillo said. “There’s a level of power and influence that he has. Do people on the periphery have that?”
South High senior Isaiah Acosta paid close attention in class that day. The 18-year-old, who identifies as Chicano, said knowing that his high school is paying a college professor to come teach a rigorous course about Chicano history makes him feel recognized in a way other history courses did not.
“It does make me feel like I’m noticed,” Acosta said.
And what he’s learned in this class, he said, goes far beyond memorizing facts.
“With this class, it really helped me understand that there sometimes are no right answers,” Acosta said. “You just have to keep searching, keep having dialogue with people and understanding everybody else’s beliefs and everybody else’s point of view.
“If we do that, I feel like we’ll understand each other a lot better. It won’t be divided.”