INDIANAPOLIS — While at Indianapolis Public Schools’ School 42 a while back, Garry Holland witnessed an escalating warfare between black and Hispanic fourth-grade males.
The problem was caused in part by the students’ misunderstanding of history, said the interim education chair of the Indianapolis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
But after teaching the students about the ocean currents that brought Africans to the shores of the New World long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and by showing them the colossal heads sculpted by the Olmec culture, the students saw they had more in common than not, Holland said. The Olmec heads in Central America date from at least 900 B.C. and clearly depict African men.
“In four days, they were calling each other brothers,” he said.
Small adjustments like this can make a world of difference for minority students and their academic achievement, he said. That’s why he and other educational leaders working in urban districts throughout the state pushed legislators to have districts provide an ethnic studies elective.
In June 2017, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law a measure that requires each school district to offer an ethnic studies course. How the course will look — whether it is more African-American or more Hispanic in content — will depend on the primary demographic of the school, Holland said.
Indiana is one of three states in the nation that has taken any action on this issue.
In August, California, backed away from an ethnic studies requirement for graduation, which lawmakers there said would have cost $400 million, in favor of a pilot program for up to 15 school districts. Oregon also offers a similar elective.
According to the standards approved by the Indiana Department of Education, the course is intended to provide cultural self-awareness, cultural histories of the U.S. and the world, an understanding of contemporary experiences and cultural practices, and an understanding of historical and contemporary contributions by diverse people.
Dr. Treva Bostic sat at the back of a training room in Indianapolis Public Schools’ Office of Racial Equity, soaking in the information offered by Holland on the requirements of the new ethnic studies course. Anderson Community Schools’ first director of multicultural education and behavioral service has been authorized to buy the state’s curriculum.
“This is so long overdue when we talk about racial equity," she said. "It’s 2018, and it’s finally coming about. I do believe it’s going to close the achievement gap.”
Most districts serving Madison County and nearby communities already have added the ethnic studies as an elective social studies credit to their course books for the 2018-19 school year. Most are offering it only at the high school level.
“We are currently only offering the ethnic studies class at the high school level as required by the DOE,” said Elwood Jr.-Sr. High School guidance counselor Rachel Cunningham. “With that said, ethnic studies is also very much a part of our seventh- and 10th-grade world history courses as well. As a school district, we emphasize the importance of showing respect to all people regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, etc.”
Though Frankton-Lapel Community Schools and Elwood Community Schools each already have 17 students enrolled for their courses scheduled to start second semester, ethnic studies already was canceled by South Madison Community Schools for lack of interest.
The shortage of students in a first-year elective always can be a problem, the superintendents said. But the homogeneity of the rural districts in Madison County also might lead to a lack of interest, the superintendents agreed.
“I believe that the course is extremely useful for all students as both large and small communities are becoming more diverse,” Cunningham said. “In today's global society, it's imperative that students understand that the similarities between different ethnic groups are much greater than the differences. Being able to work with all people is a required skill for success in today's workforce.”
However, Madison-Grant United School Corp. overcame the problem of having enough students by offering the course online. That allows even one student to take a course without the expense of setting aside a classroom and assigning a teacher.
“For this year we are offering both ethnic studies and Indiana studies (another new add-in from the state) through the virtual academy then, depending on course requests, we will offer either one or two sections next year,” said Madison-Grant superintendent Dr. Scott Deetz. “We are a pretty homogeneous group, but our students are very curious about different culture and ethnicity. This course will be highly interesting and educational to our population.”
But it’s also a matter of marketing.
“We are encouraging anyone with an interest in this subject to take this course. We encourage anyone especially who has an interest in working with people,” Elwood’s Cunningham said. “We also go over all elective course offerings with students, so we included this course when talking with our incoming 8-12 grade students as an option for them to take.”