Redwood High School students in Visalia detail what it’s like to learn ethnic studies amid controversy – Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare…

Posted By on March 5, 2021

Redwood High School seniors on Tuesday, May 5, 2020.(Photo: Kyra Haas)

Jacob Huerta prefers to take an honest approach when teaching the pilot ethnic studies course at Redwood High School.

Huerta, who has taught history at the Visalia high school for four years, acknowledges the "ugly facts. He doesn't want his students to think, "That guy lied to me."

Yes. Some negative things occurred, he said. They will find that out anyway. For the most part, Huerta focuses on the positive contributions of ethnic groups, he added.

Huerta uses real-world examples to show his students theyre not much different from the groups theyre learning about through various newspaper articles, documentaries and books, including A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki.

The required textbook has been at the center of controversy within the Visalia Unified School District since January. Seven Visalia men argued the book lacks balance, such as vilifying white Europeans and teaching young people to see themselves as oppressed and exploited victims.

It's a controversy many of Huertas students don't agree with. Six students and their families have publicly spoke out in support of the book in recent weeks.

Two other students, including Sophomore Kassandra Almanza, believe those who oppose the book dont understand the true nature of the elective course.

This book allows the readers to understand that, in history, there are different sides to a story, Almanza said. This isn't about who the heroes are and the villains."

It is simply for us to understand and have empathy for people who now make America what America is today, she added.

The seven men opposing Takakis book believe VUSD board members rushed to approve the ethnic studies class and book, according to an op-ed they wrote last month.

They questioned if the district took shortcuts while dealing with the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, plus local racial justice protests

But thats not true, Jesus Gonzalez said. Hes the assistant principal at Redwood.

This course proposal was actually presented in October 2019, Gonzalez explained. I know because I'm the one that wrote the course outline.

In 2016, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law mandating that California high schools develop ethnic studies programs.

VUSD expected California officials to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement, so the district paused ongoing conversations that had been occurring for years, Gonzalez said.

This course, the book and everything was in place prior to the coronavirus pandemic, which means it was in place prior to (the death of) George Floyd and the protests, he said. We wanted to align the curriculum with (state requirements).

Last September, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have made ethnic studies a graduation requirement, explaining the initial draft of the curriculum was insufficiently balanced and inclusive.

His comments came at a time other ethnic groups were pushing for more representation in the curriculum.

The bigger picture is there are many other demographics who would like to be included in ethnic studies, Gonzalez said. I believe the state is looking into how to include the right amount of groups for a year-long course for graduation.

Yamilet Juarez learned more multicultural history from her ethnic studies class than past history classes she has taken at Redwood, she said.

The ethnic studies class teaches about history more than the regular classes do, the 16-year-old junior said. Its important. Because when we learn more about our cultures, ethnicities and realize how similar we all are, it will bring us together.

Juarezs mother is from Michoacn, so she did an ethnic studies project about the dances and food from the Mexican state. She presented her findings to Huerta during a breakout session on Zoom.

This course helped me find out more about myself, culture and people in the world, Juarez said. Takakis book has also helped further her knowledge of other cultures, she added.

I think we should keep the book, Juarez said. I dont think there is anything inappropriate about it.

Her fellow classmate, Almanza, agreed, saying the book is a good source for students to learn from.

Before this class, I knew almost nothing about ethnicity and culture, Almanza said. All I knew is what I heard from others, which were stereotypes of certain groups. This class proves that they aren't true. This class teaches respect toward others.

I am proud to be a part of the first-year students in the ethnic studies course, she added. I believe ethnic studies can bring Redwood students (together) as one.

Six other students who are white, Black, Native American and Hispanic also united and have publicly spoken out in support of the book at recent VUSD board meetings.

Most, including Senior Neftaly Gonzalez, made it a point to say they never learned much multicultural history before their ethnic studies course.

This is the first time in my K-12 education I have learned about so many positive contributions about the many different people in our history, including the people from my own ethnicity, Neftaly Gonzalez said.

Takakis book gave her a broader perspective of history, she said.

As a Latina, this course with great help from the textbook, has provided me a balanced perspective of our country's history as well as many ethnicities that make this country great, she added. It has increased our awareness of the resiliency, contributions and successes of the American people.

Huerta has taught three chapters of Takakis book so far.

We read the book, and we discuss questions, he said. The book is very informative. Its just a start. Its not the end.

Students recently read a chapter about Jewish Americans. To connect this history to the real world, Huerta asked students to read a 2018 Los Angeles Times article about the vandalism of a Jewish synagogue.

I wanted to make it relatable, he said.

Since the Jewish community in Tulare County is small, students had no idea a synagogue was located so close to home, Huerta said.

Its important these stories are told. These are other ethnicities we are struggling to recognize, he said. When (students)read about others they relate to, it piques their interest.

Theyre the future, Huerta added. I want to make sure they are best equipped to understand their neighborhoods and neighbors.

Huerta has envisioned other ways to connect past with present, such as reaching out to community members like Darlene Franco.

Franco of the Wukchumni tribe publicly spoke about atrocities that occurred at Indian boarding schools, which were meant to destroy Native Americans heritage. This history is not often shared in K-12 institutions, she said at a recent VUSD board meeting.

Her nephew is one of Huertas students.

Huerta would like to ask Franco and others to speak to his students about Native American history, he said.

And when its safe to do so, hed like to take his students to indigenous social gatherings, such as pow wows, in Porterville or Hanford, he added.

I like to think of myself as progressive teacher, Huerta said. If I can do anything to make it a better lesson, I will do that next year.

When researching for his initial ethnic studies course proposal, Gonzalez found that Takakis book had been part of high school curriculums for decades and that it had won awards.

Gonzalez hadn't heard opposing opinions on the book until after Jerry Jensen spoke at a VUSD board meeting in January. Jensen is one of the seven men opposing the book.

Gonzalez believes the book is appropriate for high school students. He hasnt received any complaints from parents and students, he said.

Though he doesnt agree with the seven men, Gonzalez believes in finding common ground.

The gentlemen who commented on the book I would welcome them to reach out to myself, Gonzalez said, and also reach out to the teacher or the students in the course for them to gain their perspectives of how they feel about the textbook.

Gonzalez supports A Different Mirror for Young People and has no problems with his high school senior daughter taking the course.

She had a very positive experience, Gonzalez said. We've had great conversations around the dinner table about what she's learning and things she had not considered about other ethnic groups being discussed in the course.

The course has opened up her eyes to the greater world, he added, and the greater community we live in.

Contact education reporter Kristan Obeng at Follow her on Twitter @KrissyObeng.

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