St. Paul Public Schools is making critical ethnic studies — a course now being piloted at three high schools — a graduation requirement starting with the class of 2025.

The requirement, approved by the school board this month, has counted among its strongest advocates a student advisory board that issued a report on the subject two years ago and members of the Asian community, the district's largest demographic group.

The vote was poignant in its timing — coming at what would have been the end of late board Chair Marny Xiong's term in office. Superintendent Joe Gothard reminded members that Xiong, who died of COVID-19 in 2020, told student leaders when they came forward with recommendations: "I will be your champion."

In its report, the student group cited a 2016 study that showed a ninth-grade class pilot program in the San Francisco school district — a class covering the histories and struggles of multiple ethnic groups — had improved student attendance, grades and graduation rates.

St. Paul now offers ethnic studies electives specific to individual ethnic groups and to the LGBTQ community in work that will continue. Earlier this year, a district administrator said the intent of the new critical ethnic studies course is for students to explore who they are — not to tell them who they are.

At a board meeting in October, Chong Yang Thao, a teacher at Como Park Senior High, explained how the principles are being put into practice, and in the process, put distance between the course and the similarly titled critical race theory — an academic concept that conservative critics have said divides white students and students of color.

Yang Thao said 35 students enrolled in her pilot course, but seven later opted out. She said 30% of the class is white and 70% is students of color.

Far from being divisive, she said the course is meant to be empowering and that as a teacher she has prided herself on building unity and a sense of community. She said she's shared with students her story of growing up as a refugee and how her family has done well and is "paying it forward" through teaching and public service.

She expects her students to tell their stories, too, and ask tough questions. The divisiveness in the country, she said, boils down to people simply not talking to one another.

"I said to my students at the very beginning of the class this year: This is not a safe space. If you want safe space, we talk about weather and sports," she said. "I'm going to ask you really tough questions about yourself [and] how you feel about things."

She did not offer specifics about those conversations.

Board Member John Brodrick, a retired district social studies teacher, went point-by-point on any potential link to the controversy surrounding critical race theory in an effort to establish a public record to the contrary. Satisfied, he backed the requirement.

Board Chair Jeanelle Foster said she saw the future of the district as one where "each of our kids can show up" and know they have a voice.

Foster acknowledged there can be questions about the course "but we've got to be courageous, brave and bold," she said. "We cannot operate in fear. Our goal is to create positive student outcomes for kids. So we've got to get them what they need."

Board Member Chauntyll Allen echoed the desire for greater communication among students, adding she believed there was hope for a "greater society" in St. Paul through the discussions made possible by the critical ethnic studies course.

"I truly believe this will change the lives of a lot of our students," she said.

This year, the pilot course also is being offered at Humboldt and Harding high schools, with 37 and 22 students enrolled, respectively.

The plan is for next year's sophomores to take the course, but newcomers to the district also are expected to be able to enroll as juniors and seniors.