Berkeley High continues to expand ethnic studies curriculum


In October of 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 101, a historic bill which made California the first ever state to require Ethnic studies for high school graduation. On some lessons, Berkeley High School is currently collaborating with the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium to develop curriculum, as well annually reevaluating the curriculum to ensure that BHS students are being best served and educated. 

Ethnic Studies began as a response to the underrepresentation of people of color in Eurocentric school curriculums. Today, it has been transformed into a class that covers everything from social justice to current events. According to Juan Rayboza, BHS principal, Ethnic Studies is “an opportunity for us to recognize our own identity, our relation to other identities, and the experiences of different people in our society.”

At BHS, freshmen take Ethnic Studies and Social Living (ESSL) in the first and second semesters of the school year, respectively. Beyond freshman year, BHS offers different types of Ethnic Studies classes, including classes in the African American Department, Latinx literature, and AAPI Literature. Each class must follow A-G approved standards, meaning that the University of California has reviewed courses and given credit for them, according to Raygoza.

“But then from there, teaching is a lot more than just your curriculum,” said Raygoza. “It’s how you engage your students, the activities you do.” 

According to Raygoza, BHS encourages teachers to be creative and flexible to the needs and interests of their students, as well as teach current events. 

“We encourage teachers to be able to bring that into the classroom,” he said.

With this flexibility comes an ability to reconsider what’s being taught. Every year, the Ethnic Studies curriculum gets reevaluated, according to Hasmig Minassian, Universal 9th Grade (U9) Leader and U9 Ethnic Studies teacher. 

“The teachers share curriculum with each other and talk about where things went wrong,” she said, “like where we see gaps in our current curriculum.”

In particular, “we wanted to take a deeper dive … about the social change movements across the United States,” Minassian said. Another focus was in Arab American Studies. “With our population of Arab American students, particularly our Yemeni population … we never feel like we do a great job in talking about the Yemeni American immigrant and identity experience,” said Minassian.

BUSD also has plans to expand Ethnic Studies into K-8 curricula. “(It’s) because a lot of people aren’t really exposed to Ethnic Studies before (their freshman year), so then we have to go over a lot of the topics that are pretty basic,” said Menaka Gentle, an U9 Ethnic Studies teacher. “And I think that’s most students. They have no idea what it is; they don’t know what they’re getting into.” By incorporating Ethnic Studies concepts into earlier education, students will have a deeper understanding of it by the time they reach freshman year, said Gentle.

In these areas, among other lessons and curricula, BUSD is collaborating with the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium (LESMCC), a group of educators from all over the state that “aids in guiding and developing Ethnic Studies courses, units, and lesson plans,” according to their website. According to Minassian, universities and school districts contract with them to “help build curriculum in all elements of Ethnic Studies.”

The LESMCC consults Ethnic Studies teachers, who then consider the ideas and feedback given, explained Minassian. “They help us think of things we haven’t thought of yet … because they are experts in Ethnic Studies education.”

Additionally, students have a say in what they’re being taught. “I think what it takes is just the curriculum to continue to develop, and for the students… to advocate for that,” said Raygoza. “What is it that you want to learn about, what is it that you care about… make that be known. Teaching has to be responsive to the needs of our students.”

One occasion for students and the Berkeley community to educate themselves on changes on the curriculum is at the Ethnic Studies District Showcase on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, at Rosa Parks Elementary. “It’s really an opportunity … for students and staff to go and learn more about the work that the district is doing right now to build this curriculum,” said Raygoza. As well, it’s a chance to celebrate Ethnic Studies and individuals who have been important in its development, explained Raygoza. According to Gentle, there will be lesson samples from BUSD’s collaboration with LESCC, celebrated authors, guest speakers, and vendors.

All in all, it will highlight “all of the wonderful things that Ethnic Studies has done, not just within the ninth grade but throughout BUSD,” said Gentle. 

“I’m really proud of the fact that, at BHS, we have these (Ethnic Studies) course offerings for students,” Raygoza said. “The feedback that we get from staff but especially from students is that these spaces … can be very reaffirming and be very empowering.” It’s a place where students can feel empowered and understand that their ethnic identities are validated and valued, explained Raygoza. “So the fact that we can offer that to students as a course at their time in BHS is, I think, a success.”