Centaurus High School Students Advocate for an Ethnic Studies Course

A group of Lafayette students first offered an ethnic studies course in seventh grade, but did not have enough support to make the course happen.

Now juniors at Centaurus High, they said, their school experiences have only increased their motivation to continue advocating.

“We never felt represented in our classes, and we always learned about the same people, who weren’t like us,” said junior Andrea Montiel.

This year, their continued advocacy is paying off. They have the support of teachers and the district to create the new class, with the goal of offering it to Centaurus in the spring of 2023. Once approved, it would also be an option for all high schools in the district.

Left to right: Centaurus juniors Andrea Montiel, Isaiah Williams and Lili Contreras debrief Friday in the school library after a community presentation earlier in the week. The students ask the Boulder Valley School District to create an ethnic studies class. (Amy Bounds/Staff Writer)

“This year is finally the year,” said junior Isaiah Williams. “We worked very hard on this. Many students of color are tired of not feeling valued or comfortable in their own school.

He said it’s important to have an ethnic studies class because when students of color see their culture represented in the classroom, it’s usually not in a positive light.

“It’s very important to learn about slavery, but when that’s all you learn about black culture, only trauma, it becomes very disheartening,” he said. “You have to talk about joy and accomplishments.”

The students began developing the class as a project under the University of Colorado Boulder’s Public Achievement program. Centaurus and Angevine Middle students in the AVID program – Advancement Via Individual Determination – work with Public Achievement. With CU Boulder undergraduates as coaches, students develop projects on school and community issues, including immigration, racism, and educational equity.

While Boulder High offers an elective race relations course that focuses on the transatlantic slave trade and its impacts on modern race relations, no school offers a more general ethnic studies course. The district created the Race Relations class in partnership with Impact on Education’s AT LAST – Alliance to Teach the Legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade – project.

For the ethnic studies class, students said they want an inclusive class that represents different identities, histories, and cultures and includes LGBTQ perspectives.

Lynn Gershman, Director of Academic Services at Boulder Valley, helps guide students through the course development and approval process. The district has not been accepting applications for new classes during the pandemic, she said, but will reopen the process in the fall.

She said creating the new class first requires determining the social norms of the state that the class will target. Then it comes down to deciding what the assessments will look like, from exams to projects to a menu of assessment options. Finally, study units will be created.

To create the study units, she says, she and others will work with students to identify what they want to include.

“It could be materials, films, music, experiments – it’s really very open-ended as long as we’re moving towards the objectives of the course,” she said. “We don’t necessarily need them to write the course, but we want it to include their ideas. This is their course.

She added that she was excited to start working on developing the course.

“I’m really, really proud of this band,” she said. “They are exactly the kind of student advocates who make being an educator such a wonderful thing.”

For example, students looked at ethnic studies courses in California, which in 2021 passed a law requiring the course for high school graduation.

They said they wanted the class to include information about traditions, hairstyles, clothing, food, dance, music, history and “everything that makes these cultures unique”. Equally important, they added, is the classroom environment. They want photos and posters of prominent historical figures and color shifters, cultural artwork, music from different cultures, and circle desks to facilitate conversations.

“We want students to share their stories,” said junior Ann Spence. “It’s a matter of inclusivity for everyone.”

Students said the benefits of the class include improving student engagement and graduation rates, creating supportive learning environments for underrepresented students, helping students to value their own cultural identity while appreciating differences and promoting cross-cultural understanding between students of color and white students.

“Racism will continue to perpetuate itself until we put an end to it,” said junior Lili Contreras.

Although they said they wish the class was offered sooner, they are optimistic that their work will benefit the students who come after them – and want to see the school and district continue to support the class long after the graduation.

“This class is so important and so valuable,” Williams said. “It’s not necessarily a want, but a need.”

James C. Tibbs