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Teachers plan ethnic studies program

City educators form grassroots action

Catherine McGloin
Teachers plan ethnic studies program
Teachers gathered at a conference in Dorchester to discuss a new ethnic studies curriculum for Boston’s public schools. Photo: Natalia Cuadra-Saez

Educators in Boston’s public schools have begun outlining plans for an ethnic studies program, one they hope will help make the district’s curriculum more representative of its diverse student population.

More than 40 teachers and grassroots education activists attended a full-day conference at the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) building in Dorchester Nov. 16, to start work on building an ethnic studies program. They hope to introduce it into Boston Public Schools classrooms in an attempt to engage students and create a curriculum that better reflects their specific linguistic, racial and cultural backgrounds.

More than 40 educators, supported by the Boston Teachers’ Union, have started outlining a new curriculum. Photo: Natalia Cuadra-Saez

More than 40 educators, supported by the Boston Teachers’ Union, have started outlining a new curriculum. Photo: Natalia Cuadra-Saez

“It’s important for Boston because the majority of our students are students of color,” said Natalia Cuadra-Saez, an organizer with the BTU and former BPS teacher. Students of color account for 86 percent of BPS pupils, while 45 percent of Boston’s students do not speak English as their first language.

“We think that our students deserve the opportunity to have a more relevant and engaging curriculum where the lives of people of color are central,” Cuadra-Saez told the Banner in a phone interview. “When students see themselves in the curriculum, they feel more engaged, attendance is better, they’re more successful overall,” she said.

Drawing on lessons learned from the implementation of similar ethnic studies curriculum in Arizona, California and at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, this grassroots teachers’ movement plans to use $15,000 from the $300,000 BTU-BPS Teacher Leadership Grant awarded last spring to develop learning materials and professional training opportunities that will enable BPS schools to offer ethnic studies classes.

Ethnic studies can be defined as the study of race, ethnicity and power, centered on the experiences of people of color. It covers a range of subject areas, including history and political science.

Cuadra-Saez admitted that she, like many of the teachers involved, is still learning what the program will look like in Boston’s public schools. She stressed that the conference was just the beginning of the process, but that they hope to have an ethnic studies curriculum ready to run on a trial basis in a few classrooms by the next academic year, with the finalized version ready to be rolled out in schools in two years’ time.

This latest meeting follows years of advocacy on this issue from groups like El Movimiento, founded by Boston teenagers. Last year’s entire senior class at Roxbury’s Dearborn STEM Academy, which reopened in the summer in a new $73 million building, were in favor of introducing an ethnic studies course.

“Right now we have a passionate group of teachers, but what we need is commitment from the district,” said Cuadra-Saez, a commitment yet to materialize, but one she is hopeful they will receive.

According to the BTU’s statement, next steps in the creation of this new curriculum include a feedback process between BPS educators and program designers, along with continued professional development. When final plans for the new curriculum are ready, they will be available to read on the BPS website.

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