Ethnic Studies teacher Jeren Penalosa grew up hating his Filipino identity. He believed that being an American meant fitting in and assimilating, so that was his goal throughout his high school career at James Logan High School (JLHS) in Union City. On top of that, the Eurocentric curriculum he was taught made him feel like his story had no value.
However, there was something special about the high school he attended. JLHS has one of the most developed high school Ethnic Studies Departments in the country, offering nine different courses, including Filipino Heritage Studies and Asian American Studies which Penalosa took.
Penalosa said that when he took Asian American Studies, he didn’t care about the class due to the hatred ingrained in him towards his own culture and people. Now, he thinks it changed his life. “Even if you don’t realize how much the class impacted you until years later, it really carries on into your soul. Actually being integrated in a curriculum really changes everything. It helps you develop a sense of identity, and a sense of actualization of who you are, where you come from,” Penalosa said.
Now, only six years after graduating high school, he has returned to JLHS to teach Asian American Studies. “I’m really grateful and amazed to be [a] part of the legacy,” said Penalosa. “Being a product of ethnic studies and how it saved my life, I think these are the strong reasons why you see so many young folk of color go into education; especially into Social Studies [classes] … Because for a lot of reasons, they might not have gotten the education that they [deserved].”
JLHS’s extensive Ethnic Studies Department dates back to the 1970s. It started with a Chicano Studies class and an African American (AfAm) history class, but has since expanded to include AfAm Issues, Asian American Studies, Ethnic Women’s Studies, Filipino Heritage Studies, Issues In Ethnic Studies, Latino Issues In the United States, Mexican American Heritage, and Multicultural Literature classes.
JLHS requires students to take one semester of an Ethnic Studies class in order to graduate, and the class is usually taken freshman year. However, some students elect to take another semester or year of an Ethnic Studies course later in high school.
The Ethnic Studies Department is a point of pride for JLHS — especially for those who work there. According to fellow JLHS Ethnic Studies teacher, Ivan Santos, “We’ve literally had students come in and tell us, ‘My life transformed in the Ethnic Studies class, because for once, I felt like somebody believed in me; for once it felt like I was bigger than than just a student, and I was actually part of a community.’ We have so many success stories.”
The various Ethnic Studies courses at JLHS came from the needs and voices of parents, students, and teachers in the community. Santos believes that it is the school district’s duty as civil servants to offer the courses that the community wants. “We’re paid by public funds. Therefore, we work for the community. If it’s something that the community wants and it’s something that the community demands, it’s something that we have to provide,” said Santos.
JLHS’s Filipinx Heritage course was created in the early 2000s, after teachers noticed many Filipino boys were unsuccessful in school. They found that this was due to the lack of connection they felt to the topics they were learning about.
“When those young Filipinxs came to class and saw stories that represented their families, they were immediately more engaged. They immediately found a reason to love education again,” said Santos.
Asian American Studies is one of the semester-long courses offered at JLHS. It covers broader topics surrounding identity like race, class, sex, and gender. Asian American Studies students also — like in all JLHS Ethnic Studies classes — learn about social justice, power, and systems of oppression. They then move on to immigration and the building of community in America.
According to Penalosa, “[Ethnic studies is] not just learning about the history, but learning about the social movements, the struggles, and the resiliency. What does it mean to go beyond just identity politics, but to actually bring positive change to your community — especially as a person of color?”
JLHS also has an Ethnic Studies & Social Justice Academy, which is a small school within the high school that has about thirty students per grade. It is offered starting sophomore year, and then continues through the end of high school. Each cohort takes their English and Social Science classes together, and the academy’s curriculum is taught through a social justice and ethnic studies lens. It focuses on providing a fuller alternative of relaying history to its students.
When JLHS’s overall Ethnic Studies Program is compared with Berkeley High School’s (BHS) AfAm Department and two Chicanx/Latinx courses, it’s clear that JLHS caters to a more diverse group of students, which may be something BHS should emulate. But it’s important to keep in mind the vast population differences between JLHS and BHS. About half of JLHS’s student population is Asian/Pacific Islander American (APIA), whereas the APIA population at BHS is only about eight percent. Typically, it is a school’s duty to represent the needs of its students through its courses. As JLHS has a much larger APIA population than BHS, there is a much greater demand for Asian and Filipinx-focused classes there than at BHS. One of the main questions is whether the BHS student body will find these classes useful, and if the enrollment rates will be worth the funding and effort.
In terms of implementing APIA-focused courses at BHS, funding is not the greatest issue. BHS history teacher Rebecca Villagran said that in order for a new course to be created at BHS, a teacher must be willing to teach the course, write the curriculum, and then get it approved by the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board and the University of California. Villagran went through these hurdles when creating the BHS Latinx History class. She recalled that when she was creating the course, BHS staff were excited and supportive of her. Hypothetically, there could be a similar set-up with APIA Studies classes.
“The way it’s historically worked at our school is you need to be that identity in order to teach it,” said Villagran. So the main component to getting an APIA Studies class is finding an APIA-identifying teacher who is willing to create and teach the course.
In terms of expenses, the funding for a class comes from the number of students willing to take it, so another main concern in the process would be having a large enough number of students sign up in order to attain the necessary funding.
It should also be considered that upper-division Ethnic Studies classes — like specialized literature and history courses — aren’t always accessible to students in Small Learning Communities (SLCs) besides Academic Choice (AC), because of their strict course requirements. Ethnic Studies classes are mostly available to AC students, which could potentially lower the amount of student sign-ups or prevent the class from being accessible to students in other SLCs.
Villagran said there has long been a debate about requiring BHS students to take an Ethnic Studies course in order to graduate. A policy requiring students to take upper-division Ethnic Studies classes, like Latinx History or AfAm Literature, would greatly increase the sign up rates for these classes. But such a requirement would face heavy backlash, as it adds another obstacle before graduating high school and may harm students who are already struggling to graduate.
However, Santos said the graduation requirement doesn’t pose an issue for students at JLHS. “We have the same requirements as a lot of high schools, but then we tacked on that extended graduation requirement and the schedule still fits,” he said. “I think any school district — if it really wanted to — would make it happen.”
Having an Ethnic Studies Department like the one at JLHS has been a topic of discussion at BHS. BHS only has an AfAm Studies Department due to the historic advocacy by the Black population in Berkeley. Villagran said that there has been an effort to turn the AfAm Studies Department into an Ethnic Studies Department, but that could take attention away from Black Studies. “It’s very powerful to have a Black Studies department, so I don’t want to encroach on that because that’s amazing,” said Villagran. However, perhaps BHS can find a way to build an Ethnic Studies Department that can still honor its Black population.
Although the JLHS Asian American Studies class is centered around Asian American history and existence, Penalosa, like his coworkers, thinks it’s important to discuss other issues. “I think it’s important to root ourselves in solidarity, and understand the freedom and then the struggles of Black and Indigenous folks that tie into our liberation,” said Penalosa. This is where that intersectionality of Ethnic Studies classes comes in. The issues that concern Asian Americans tie into the issues that concern every other race in America. “That’s one of the biggest reasons why we don’t necessarily jump straight into Asian American history. Because I think we need — especially in this context of what’s happening in 2020 alone — [to be]learning about the creation of race and anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity,” he explained.
Given Penalosa’s observation, would adding more Ethnic Studies classes truly steal the spotlight from BHS’s AfAm Studies Department? According to Penalosa, this would not be the case, as Asian Americans and Black Americans share common themes and struggles in their histories. Many issues are interrelated, and studying the challenges faced by one race can aid in addressing those of the other.
Penalosa said that anti-Blackness connects to Asian American history in part through colorism. Asian Americans with lighter skin go through life with more privilege than those with darker skin, because of the deep rooted anti-Blackness and colorism in our society. “That huge anti-Blackness — especially for a lot of Asian communities — roots from colonization and pushing away the values of dark skin,” said Penalosa.
The model minority myth further ties into anti-Blackness within the Asian community. The model minority myth refers to the idea that Asian Americans are the “superior” minority. They are considered more successful than other minority Americans, and have even been used as an excuse for racism towards Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people. “I feel like that [myth] really harbors that anti-Blackness within our own families,” said Penalosa.
The power of ethnic studies lies in a class’s ability to give students the space to change these phenomena, by connecting and educating them on how to bring about change in their communities.
“If ethnic studies is taught correctly, it’s not just about the content. It’s not just about the history. But it’s about every single person that’s in that classroom. It is really about building community and bridging the gaps between a bunch of different communities, and allowing young people to really find power in their voice,” said Santos.
Penalosa said it takes a community effort to create a new course and get it approved — especially a course like Asian American Studies. “Obviously, we’ll have some pushback from specific communities because the California standards already are very Eurocentric and white,” said Penalosa.
Regardless, new courses might not be in the cards for BHS. “We are never going to be able to teach everything,” Villagran explained. “You can’t just add things, because there’s no time, so you have to replace something else. There’s always going to be a tension about what we learn, and that’s to be expected. We should just be talking about the tension.”
This is the second part of an ongoing investigative series. Return next issue to read part three.
Update: This article was changed to correct the name of Jeren Penalosa