On Oct. 8, 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 101 bill into law—making California the only state in the nation to require that students complete an ethnic-studies class in order to graduate from high school.

The state’s school districts have some time to comply with the law. Beginning in the 2025-2026 school year, each secondary school must offer students at least one semester-long ethnic-studies course per year. In the 2029-2030 school year, the completion of such a course will become a graduation requirement.

The three valley school districts, however, are ahead of the game.

The Coachella Valley Unified School District started its ethnic-studies program in 2016; the Palm Springs Unified School District followed suit a year later. The Desert Sands Unified School District waited until a statewide model curriculum was approved in March 2021 to begin developing a curriculum; the class was taught for the first time during the August-December 2021 semester.

On a national level, the phrase “ethnic studies” often invokes disdain and concern—in large part because right-wing politicians and pundits have stoked fears over critical race theory being taught in schools. For example, a FoxNews.com article on the signing of AB 101 concluded with this: “Others have accused the bill of opening the door for critical race theory, the controversial curriculum showing up in schools across the country that contends the United States is systemically racist.”

Critical race theory, however, isn’t actually showing up in schools across the country. An NBCNews.com article from July 1, 2021, reported: “Teachers nationwide said K-12 schools are not requiring or pushing them to teach critical race theory, and most said they were opposed to adding the academic approach to their course instruction, according to a survey obtained by NBC News. Despite a roiling culture war that has blown up at school board meetings and led to new legislation in statehouses across the country, the responses from more than 1,100 teachers across the country to a survey conducted by the Association of American Educators, a nonpartisan professional group for educators, appeared to suggest that the panicked dialogue on critical race theory made by lawmakers and the media does not reflect the reality of American classrooms.”

No, critical race theory is not being taught in our valley’s high schools. But what is?

The Desert Sands Unified School District just started teaching an ethnic-studies course last year, but Marcus Wood, the district’s senior director of secondary curriculum, instruction and assessment, said the district has been looking at adding an ethnic-studies curriculum for quite some time.

DSUSD’s Marcus Wood. Photo courtesy of KESQ News Channel 3

“Our (school) board had shown interest in offering ethnic studies,” Wood said during a recent interview. “We knew at the time that there was legislation that would mandate it as a graduation requirement eventually. So … we put the board on pause for a little bit, and asked for a grace period so that we could receive that model curriculum. At that point, we began pulling a team together, and we started the creation and the development of that course.”

According to the California Department of Education, the model curriculum “will focus on the traditional ethnic studies first established in California higher education which has been characterized by four foundational disciplines: African American, Chicana/o/x and Latina/o/x, Native American, and Asian American and Pacific Islander studies.” According to an Associated Press story from Oct. 8, 2021, “It also includes lesson plans on Jews, Arab Americans, Sikh Americans and Armenian Americans who are not traditionally part of an ethnic-studies curriculum. Those groups were added after objecting to an earlier draft that left them out.”

The resulting DSUSD course, now being taught at the district’s seven high schools, is not yet required for students. It’s slated to be taught for four to five one-hour periods per week throughout an 18-week semester.

“We really wanted to start from scratch, because we wanted it to be reflective of our needs currently,” Wood said. “(We wanted) to use the model curriculum as a framework for the creation of our course. That actually helped quite a bit and did help frame up what the course did become.

“Our (ethnic-studies development) team includes representatives from each of our high schools. They’re the teachers, plus some department chairs from some of the schools who aren’t actually teaching the course, but have a passion for it.”

Woods said the course includes seven different units.

“The first unit is an introduction to ethnic studies and to one’s identity. That sets the context of the course, so that students are aware of what the course is, and how it’s different from just a regular social-science or history class that they typically take,” Woods said. “The next four units are built around the four foundational groups. … There’s a unit on each of them. Also, we have a shorter unit that’s built around locally defined groups, if you will. For our area schools, some of what’s included is a unit around the Muslim population—we have a small (Muslim) population in a couple of our schools—and then, also, the Jewish population. That (unit) could evolve overtime as demographics change. The final unit is around civic engagement. The state, also, offers a state seal of civic engagement opportunity that kids can earn. It can be part of their diploma when they graduate, and it can be added to their transcript. We’re using ethnic studies as a way to tie it in to the overall curriculum.”

While the ethnic-studies course in the Desert Sands Unified schools is new, the Palm Springs Unified School District has been offering ethnic studies since 2017. In fact, the district is now re-examining the curriculum being taught in the five PSUSD high schools.

PSUSD’s Deanna Keuilian. Photo via the PSUSD Facebook page.

“We want to ensure that it’s current,” said Deanna Keuilian, the district’s director of secondary curriculum and instruction. She and Nicole Crawford, the district’s coordinator of diversity and racial equity, spoke to the Independent during a joint interview.

“We want to ensure that the resources being used do truly celebrate the various cultures—and take a real fresh look at some of the different ethnic cultures,” Keuilian continued.

Crawford said: “We want to make sure that we highlight four main communities, and we’re actually talking about expanding them … further into gender studies, particularly focusing on women’s studies, and even adding the LGBTQ+ community. Historically, depending on the culture, I think women have been a bit overshadowed by men and their achievements, right? So we want to highlight and empower our women and our gender-identifying females within the district. We want to make sure that is an option.”

Keuilian mentioned the California Healthy Youth Act, which took effect in 2016.

“It is very explicit about the need and the necessity to bring in lessons about gender and the LGBTQIA community,” she said. “It’s very (clearly a) part of our health curriculum, and now looking at our ethnic-studies program, California has implemented that notion that we need to be more inclusive of all student populations.”

During the semester that ended in December 2021, 262 students completed the course in the Desert Sands Unified School District, while approximately 320 students did the same in the Palm Springs Unified School District.

We attempted—via multiple emails and voicemails left with three different staff members over a two-week span—to speak to someone from the Coachella Valley Unified School District regarding their ethnic-studies curriculum. We did not receive a response.

The model curriculum report released last year by the California Department of Education enumerates 15 specific benefits that can be realized by students who take ethnic-studies courses, ranging from developing a strong since of identity, to increased civic and community engagement, to increased critical-thinking skills—and even better attendance, graduation and college-attendance rates.

While it’s unclear whether statistics from the local districts back up the claims of better attendance, graduation and college-attendance rates, educators from both DSUSD and PSUSD said there’s strong anecdotal evidence that the courses are valued by both students and parents.

“The feedback has been very positive,” Keuilian said. “I think students are very interested and thirsty for this type of opportunity, to the point where we’re even having the conversation about: How do we introduce this idea of celebrating different cultures and different ethnicities sooner? How do we do this at, maybe, the middle school level? The feedback from students has been great. We have eight sections running, and they’re all full. To that point, we created the ethnic literature class, because students were so interested.”

PSUSD’s Nicole Crawford. Photo via the PSUSD Facebook page.

Crawford added: “I had one student at one of our high schools share with her site administrator that she was so appreciative of the opportunity to read from an author about the culture that she identified with. In this particular case, it was an Hispanic student, and she so appreciated being able to read and truly identify with what the author was conveying in that material. That, to me, is powerful. … I know I’m speaking about only one student, but I think it’s safe to say that other students feel the same.”

Over at the Desert Sands Unified School District, Wood said reviews of the district’s first ethnic-studies class were positive.

“At the end of that semester, we pushed out a survey to all of those families, and we got a lot of feedback, including some directly from students,” he said. “This course is designed for freshmen, but …it’s open to any level. At some schools, most of the kids have been seniors, because it just fit with their schedule. At some of our schools, the (course enrollment) is almost all freshmen, like at Shadow Hills. … The kids have done a really good job, and (the feedback), for the most part, has been positive. In looking at what the kids have said, they have a much greater appreciation and understanding for different ethnic groups. That was pretty much across the board. We tried to have them dig into the units a little bit, and we spent quite a bit of time on our Native American unit and working with the Agua Caliente tribe. … The kids all said that they were really humbled by the rich history in our valley, and several of them said that they wished they knew about this a long time ago. Some of the feedback addressed ways for improvement, and although this is a semester-long course, many said that it could easily be (a year-long course).”

“We want every kid in that classroom to see themselves as part of this country, and to see that their background is valued. The last thing we ever want to do is to make any group feel shamed or unappreciated. That goes against the very foundation of what this course is all about.” Marcus Wood, DSUSD’s senior director of secondary curriculum, instruction and assessment

Parents, in general, have also been supportive of the ethnic-studies course thus far, Wood said—despite some well-publicized contentiousness at some DSUSD board meetings involving fears of critical race theory.

“What’s happened in the classrooms, working with the teachers and the students, is all very positive,” Wood said. “When it comes to critical race theory, that’s really a college-level topic. It doesn’t enter in. … Our course is about developing an appreciation and understanding of peoples of different races and ethnicities, the historical backgrounds involving the struggles, and the challenges, and the successes. A big part of this course is the contributions made by all of these groups to our United States narrative. Ultimately … we want every kid in that classroom to see themselves as part of this country, and to see that their background is valued. The last thing we ever want to do is to make any group feel shamed or unappreciated. That goes against the very foundation of what this course is all about. Also, knowing the political environment, this has been an opportunity for us to talk to all of our teachers about what to do when a topic proves controversial. How should teachers address that? Well … it has to be age-appropriate, but the teachers are unbiased, and they provide the appropriate perspective from both sides. Our school board policy is very specific on that.

“Our teachers on the whole do a really good job. The goal is to get kids to think—to have them make up their own minds once we provide them with the information.”

At Palm Springs Unified, Keuilian noted that the district has not had to deal with the level of contentiousness other school districts across the nation—or across the valley—have had to handle.

“It’s been very positive,” she said. “We have a couple (of people) who have questions, of course, and better want to understand the curriculum and the course work. … When we share with them the course description, and our objectives, it’s been fine. I know (overwhelmingly positive feedback for ethnic studies) is not pervasive in the nation and the state, and even in our local communities, but for us in Palm Springs Unified, we’ve been very fortunate.”

Crawford said there’s no question in her mind that good ethnic-studies courses can have a tremendous positive impact on students.

“In my visits to different school sites and different classrooms, as well as in speaking with our kids here in Palm Springs, the biggest takeaway for me is hearing them say that they’re allowed to explore these different cultures and ethnicities when they may not have had that opportunity to do so (on their own) because of financial reasons,” Crawford said. “I know that growing up myself, I didn’t come from a rich family, and I wasn’t able to travel so well until my 20s—but being able to take an ethnic-studies course, I was able to educate myself and my peers about different cultural values and beliefs. I think that’s a beautiful thing. With our kids learning about different cultures, different ethnicities, different identities, etc., it builds empathy and acceptance. There are a ton of very beneficial outcomes when kids attend courses like these.”

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, after he and his wife Linda moved from Los Angeles to Palm...