Ethnic studies seen as smart move despite deficit 

While considering hundreds of layoffs and other cutbacks to close an epic budget gap, the Board of Education on Tuesday unanimously agreed to fund a pilot program adding ethnic studies courses to its high school curriculum.

Three years in the making, the pilot curriculum set for the 2010-11 school year will include a minimum of two new sections in five high schools that have yet to be named. The cost to the district for the pilot, which will include 250 students, is $253,540, according to San Francisco Unified School District figures.

The funds were approved during the same meeting, in which the board was set to approve sending out preliminary pink slips to hundreds of district teachers, administrators and other employees as it grapples with a $113 million budget deficit projected for the next two years.

Along with layoffs, increased class sizes and program cuts also are inevitable, particularly due to a crippling reduction in state funding, Superintendent Carlos Garcia said.

Nevertheless, the need for an adequate ethnic studies curriculum in district high schools is dire, particularly considering around 90 percent of the district’s 55,000 kindergartners through 12th-graders are nonwhite, advocates said Tuesday.

Dozens of students joined several teachers in rallying to support the pilot program Tuesday at district headquarters. One social studies teacher said her courses are “completely Euro-centric.” Several students told board members it was unfair and illogical to learn solely about European history and culture rather than their own.

“Our parents are paying taxes,” said Brenda Juarez, 15, a 10th-grader at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School. “They have to give us this now. Not next year, now.”

Jane Kim, president of the school board and who has been pushing for the pilot program, said the investment is wise despite the district’s fiscal woes.

“I think we do have flexibility to find funding,” she said. “I mean, we’re still talking about a $400 million budget.”

In the long term, an ethnic studies curriculum will “be a cost savings to the district if we’re able to retain more students,” Kim said.

A student in the program will be able to receive upward of six college credits at San Francisco State University, so “it’s going to save students money when they go to college,” she said.

Advocates also said ethnic studies courses are proven to “steer youth away from truancy and the juvenile justice system by making their educational experience more personal and relevant.”

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