Earlier this month, the Texas State Board of Education rejected a Mexican-American studies textbook, leaving public school teachers without state-approved materials to teach the topic. But that doesn’t mean schools can’t offer ethnic studies courses. In fact, a handful of public schools across the state have elective courses on ethnic studies topics, which are designed by local teachers and administrators with little direction from the state.
Lyndon B. Johnson Early College High School is one of eight schools in the Austin Independent School District offering an ethnic studies course for the first time this year. Andrea Gaines and a few other Austin ISD teachers worked over the summer to create a curriculum for the course. It relies heavily on primary sources and graphic novels to introduce students to alternative narratives in American history. Last week, Gaines asked her class to reflect on what they’ve learned so far this year. Dawnye McKee’s answer? Everything she didn’t learn in American History.
“I feel like we’ve learned things that we don’t usually learn. Cause I mean we’ve all taken history before. So we’ve learned things we didn’t even touch on when we took the required history,” McKee says.
Gaines’ class roughly reflects the demographics of LBJ’s student body, which is 60 percent Hispanic, 36 percent African-American and 2 percent Caucasian. She says the class has been especially interesting to students at LBJ because the school building also houses a majority-Caucasian magnet school on the floor above.
“I think it’s been really healthy for students to have space to be really open and understand all the structural things that have created these two schools and a lot of the feelings they’ve had their whole high school experience,” Gaines says.
In her class, Gaines covers topics including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Both of those topics concern students of color in America gaining access to education. Dawnye McKee says this material has made her enjoy a subject she used to hate.
“Honestly, I’m gonna tell the truth,” McKee says. “I always hated history. Because I think that like, you know, I choose to remember things that are important to me and I never felt like any of that was important to me as an individual.”
Though this course doesn’t have a state-approved textbook, it does meet state requirements. Jessica Jolliffe made sure of that. She’s the social studies supervisor for Austin ISD. She had teachers in the district work with professors from the University of Texas at Austin to create an ethnic studies curriculum that aligned with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, requirements for special topics in social studies.
“So the special topics TEKS don’t call out specific people, or specific groups, or specific time periods. They don’t reference specific events. It’s all very general. So it’s easy to fit what we want to do in ethnic studies into those TEKS,” she says.
Jolliffe says she also reached out to Houston ISD, which has offered a course in Mexican-American Studies for the last few years. The Texas Education Agency approved it as an Innovative Course, which is a designation the state Board of Eduction created to allow schools to offer courses that go beyond what’s required by TEKS. Douglas Torres-Edwards is the former director of Social Studies for Houston ISD.
“It’s an innovative course that was approved as Mexican-American studies. It’s a stand-alone course that TEA has now approved for use, not only in Houston ISD, but as other districts may be interested, they can also adopt our learning objectives and offer a bona fide Mexican-American Studies course as well,” he says.
To use Houston’s innovative Mexican-American studies course, school districts just need to vote to approve it. Torres-Edwards worries that could be restrictive. He cites what happened in Arizona, where state legislators voted in 2010 to ban the teaching of ethnic studies. That law was in place until a federal judge ruled this August that the ban was unconstitutional. Angela Valenzuela, a professor of Mexican American Studies at UT-Austin, testified in the Arizona case. She was also involved in developing the ethnic studies course for Austin ISD.
“This all goes back ultimately to the late ’60s and ’70s, when the ethnic studies movements were very strong. But there’s been kind of a hiatus, for a number of reasons, but Arizona was I think what inspired everybody,” Valenzuela says.
Valenzuela believes the Arizona ruling helped push the Texas Board of Education to change its stance on ethnic studies materials and courses. After voting against approving a Mexican-American studies course in 2014, the state board put out a call for textbook submissions. Board member Marisa Perez says that didn’t yield the results they’d hoped for. Now, they’re back at square one. Perez says the board has added a discussion of developing a Mexican-American studies course to its January agenda.
“It seems like something has happened and there is an appetite for it among the board. I hope that that rings true,” Perez says.
There’s certainly an appetite among students, as Gaines’ ethnic studies class in Austin shows.
“There’s just like total enthusiasm and emotional engagement and intellectual engagement, so I think in that sense it’s a dream to teach,” Gaines says.
If the board decides to develop a Mexican-American studies course, it would be available to any public school in the state that wants to offer it.