Ethnic studies requirement proposed

Classes would focus on experiences of people of color

Minneapolis School Board
From left to right: Kim Ellison, Ed Graff, School Board treasurer Kimberly Caprini and student representative Nathaniel Genene. File photo from March 31, 2020

Minneapolis high school students could soon be required to take a semester-long course focused on race, racism and the experiences of people of color, according to a proposal being reviewed by the School Board.

The proposed ethnic studies requirement, advanced by the School Board policy committee on Sept. 22, would apply to incoming ninth graders beginning in fall 2021.

Students currently in high school would be exempt from the requirement, as would students at charter and private schools, which are independent of Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS).

School Board chair Kim Ellison said in an interview that she expects the proposal to pass when it comes up for a vote next month.

“This has been a long time coming,” she said at the Sept. 22 meeting.

MPS has offered ethnic studies courses since 2015. Schools can require students to take them, but most, including Southwest and Washburn, do not.

Classes typically focus on a specific racial group, such as African Americans, Somalis or Latinos, though some cover race and identity more broadly.

Ellison said that requiring all students to take an ethnic studies course could help students better understand different cultures and societal inequities.

Others said that ethnic studies courses can boost critical-thinking skills, give students a stronger sense of identity and create more nuanced understandings of the histories and cultures of people of color.

“To have an opportunity to learn about those perspectives and issues … prepares [students] to engage the world as it is,” said Jimmy Patiño, a Southwest parent and professor in the University of Minnesota’s Chicano & Latino Studies department. He’s part of an advisory group that’s advising the district on ethnic studies as it prepares to implement the requirement.

Washburn 12th-grader Sonia Svedahl, another member of the advisory group, said she thinks the requirement could help students better understand connections between history and current social movements.

Eleventh-grader Yahanna Mackbee, also on the advisory group, took an ethnic studies course last year and said it was among the most powerful she’s had in high school.

She said the class gave students an opportunity to share their emotions and speak their truths, adding that some students would skip other classes to attend.

Both she and Svedahl said they hope the new ethnic studies classes are taught by teachers of color.

MPS social studies specialist Lisa Purcell, who’s leading the advisory group, said principals are supportive of the new requirement, though they have been asking how it fits within efforts to improve all social studies classes. (A decennial review of the state’s social studies standards is underway, and some students have been pushing for curricula more inclusive of people of color.)

Purcell said a benefit of requiring the class could be that ethnic studies teachers will have more time to devote to planning their courses. Currently, many ethnic studies teachers also teach other subjects and are forced to split their prep time as a result.

Ethnic studies would replace one of the 12 semester-long general-elective courses that students must take in order to graduate. Students would instead be required to take 11 semester-long elective courses.

They would still be required to take seven semesters of history/social studies, in addition to ethnic studies.

Because the district will not be adding any credit requirements, the proposal will not cost anything, beyond costs for professional development and materials, Purcell said. High schools will be allowed to decide how they modify their schedules.