St. Paul Public Schools plan to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement starting with the class of 2025, and work has begun on a course to be piloted at three high schools this fall.

Teachers have been selected and curriculum and lesson plans are to be written this summer, according to an update provided to school board members on Tuesday.

The board still must sign off on the "Critical Ethnic Studies" requirement, with a vote expected by year's end. The move would fulfill requests made in recent years by a student advisory board and by members of the Asian community — the district's largest demographic group.

Ethnic studies can be seen as a way to engage students and encourage them to dig deeper and reflect on their own experiences, said Kalid Ali, a Como Park Senior High student who is a member of the SPPS Student Engagement and Advancement Board (SEAB) and a steering committee providing input on the course's development.

KaYing Yang, director of programs and partnerships for the Coalition of Asian American Leaders in St. Paul, said in an interview this year that she backed the district's work and believed it was time for a statewide requirement given the current movement toward racial justice.

"We feel there should be a structured environment that can positively influence students' attitudes and tolerance — for all students," she said.

Still to be determined is precisely what will be taught in St. Paul's Critical Ethnic Studies course.

Two years ago, SEAB recommended making ethnic studies part of the core curriculum, saying the lessons and projects could strengthen student self-esteem and have them thinking more critically and collaboratively with teachers. The group cited a study showing that a San Francisco school district course helped improve student attendance, grades and graduation rates.

St. Paul now has ethnic studies electives devoted to specific ethnic groups and to the LGBTQ community — courses that still will be offered. Critical Ethnic Studies is expected to be more conceptual in nature. A district administrator said earlier this year that students will not be told who they are, but encouraged to explore who they are.

A template provided to the board Tuesday provided an example of how the course could be structured. It listed seven principles of ethnic studies: love and respect, reflection, critical consciousness, hope, solidarity, community and transformation. A unit of study outlined in the example included a four-week examination of immigration and migration.

Board member Chauntyll Allen questioned why there would be a specific mention of immigrants and not about Black and Indigenous people, saying it was essential that they, too, be part of any classroom discussions.

Mouakong Vue, the district's new ethnic studies specialist, said the template was being used as a reference and that the suggested units may not show up in the final product. For example, he said, efforts are being made not to double up on content areas covered in other required courses, he said.

Board member John Brodrick, a retired district social studies teacher, said course specifics were needed in light of debate nationally over how schools are addressing the subject of systemic racism.

"Until I get a better idea of what the actual course content will be, I have some real fears that we will be entering into an ideological controversy that'll be hard to extricate ourselves from," he said. "My overriding concern is that parents need to know what their children are going to be taught."

Work on curriculum writing and lesson planning is scheduled for July. Students have begun enrolling in courses to be offered this fall at Harding, Como Park and Humboldt high schools.

The remaining high schools will follow suit in 2022.

In November, the Minneapolis school board approved an ethnic studies requirement — also to go into effect for the class of 2025.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109