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Seattle school district develops ethnic studies curriculum, responding to student demand

Ashley Gross
Tracy Castro-Gill is ethnic studies program manager for the Seattle school district. She previously taught social studies at Denny International Middle School and is the 2019 regional teacher of the year for the Puget Sound Educational Service District.

Two Democratic state lawmakers have pre-filed a bill that would require the development of a model ethnic studies curriculum for grades 7 through 12. Other states, such as California, have already started doing so.

In Seattle, the school district is in the process of developing its own ethnic studies curriculum for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. That got going after the Seattle King County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People passed a resolution calling on the school board to adopt ethnic studies, saying it’s a way to increase achievement and close the opportunity gap for students who have been marginalized.

And students have told the Seattle school board that it’s needed. At a Dec. 19 school board meeting, students described recent racist incidents at Seattle high schools.

“Seattle schools need to realize that the absence of proper education of other cultures has left students of color to feel unsafe, harassed, misunderstood and attacked in their own community,” Celia Chan, a senior and the NAACP Youth Coalition representative at Nathan Hale High School, told the board. “The way the curriculum is set up now makes it seem like Seattle schools only consist of white students. Why is my Chinese culture only the dynasty, the Chinese railroad workers and a racist comic book called 'American Born Chinese’?”

Tracy Castro-Gill, ethnic studies program manager for Seattle Public Schools, said that’s why she and other educators are hard at work developing curriculum that will better reflect the student population in Seattle. She said gaps in test scores between white students and students of color show that the latter group is not being well-served by the school system.

“We’re not valuing students of color and the knowledge they bring into the classroom,” she said.

She's been training teachers and helping a group of educators, mostly people of color, who are writing the curriculum. She said embracing ethnic studies will likely help improve retention of non-white teachers.

“Educators of color are saying things to me like, 'Because of ethnic studies, I’m still in the classroom,’” she said. “'If I wouldn’t have been involved in ethnic studies, I would have quit the profession altogether.’”

As The Seattle Times recently reported, about 80 percent of Seattle’s teachers are white. Castro-Gill said she sometimes has to reassure white teachers who feel unprepared to teach ethnic studies.

“It can’t just be educators of color doing this, otherwise white people are going to be exactly like that - 'It’s not for me, it’s not my thing,’” she said. “My story to white educators is that you are the model for how a white educator can and should be when it comes to ethnic studies.”

Castro-Gill said the aim is to make the curriculum hyperlocal and include input from community groups. One unit for fifth graders will teach them about the civil rights movement, including the activism of Aki Kurose, a Seattle teacher who fought for housing desegregation. A high school unit will examine many aspects of the Duwamish River, including its importance for indigenous people and immigrants.