A student group known for getting results is determined to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in the St. Paul Public Schools.

In a presentation to school board members this week, the SPPS Student Engagement and Advancement Board pushed for policy and program changes that would make the district one of a handful in the country to shift the courses — typically offered as electives — into the core curriculum.

Nationally, ethnic studies classes have been shown to make a difference.

A 2016 study published by the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis found that a ninth-grade course piloted by the San Francisco school district — a class covering the histories and political struggles of multiple ethnic groups — had improved students’ attendance, grades and graduation rates.

Designers of that curriculum also hoped the lessons and projects would spur a commitment to social justice and strengthen self-esteem — goals echoed by students and advocates in St. Paul. Students want to be engaged and to think critically and collaboratively with teachers, said Rajni Schulz, a student at Central High who led the group presenting Tuesday.

A two-year-old survey that has remained central to the student group’s work found that only half of St. Paul’s students of color saw themselves reflected in the district’s curriculum. That is a concern to Superintendent Joe Gothard. He has made culturally relevant instruction a goal of his new strategic plan, SPPS Achieves, and on Tuesday, he pledged to join his leadership team in reviewing and responding to the student group’s recommendations.

“You’re asking for real change, and I think it’s probably long overdue,” he said.

The proposal is the group’s most ambitious thus far and follows a string of victories that include the successful promotion of stronger accountability measures for school resource officers, or cops in the schools, and a loosening of graduation dress codes to allow students to decorate gowns in ways that celebrate their identity and ethnicity.

Last year, the group, which changes its membership annually, released a study showing that while white students made up just 21 percent of the district’s population, they were far more likely to be enrolled in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs districtwide than students of color.

National movement

Ethnic studies, while commonly associated with higher education, has grown in influence in K-12 education.

A turning point for many advocates came in 2010 when Arizona passed a ban on a Mexican-American history course in the Tucson Unified School District. That law was challenged and, two years ago, ruled unconstitutional by a judge who said the ban was “not for a legitimate educational purpose, but for an invidious discriminatory racial purpose, and a politically partisan purpose,” the publication Education Week reported.

In its recommendations, the St. Paul student group referred to the Tucson controversy as well as a policy brief by the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership advising people how to advocate at both the district and state levels for development of ethnic studies courses.

The partnership cited not only the “positive academic and social outcomes” that come with a well-designed program, but also the empowering of students to “develop into agents for justice in their communities.”

Schulz said the St. Paul students define ethnic studies as culturally relevant curriculum that teaches history through the lens of the oppressed.

In addition to its push to make an ethnic studies course a requirement for all high school students, the student group is asking that a student-staff team guide creation of the coursework and that community members be allowed to teach — and be paid for their work.

Minneapolis has elective courses in African-American, Chicano/Latino, Asian-American and First Nations histories and will begin offering Somali studies this fall.

Gothard cautioned there would be many challenges to overcome, including policy changes, budgeting and staff training.

Some school board members suggested it would be best to move quickly.

“We are so past all of this,” Board Chairwoman Zuki Ellis said. “Clearly the adults in this room have to do a whole lot better.”

Board Member Marny Xiong, a graduate of the district, spoke of advocating as a student for the changes 12 years ago and promised the group, “I will be your champion.”

After a nod to Black History Month, which she said she celebrates 365 days a year, Board Member Jeanelle Foster said there often is talk among district leaders about barriers to overcome.

“We need to be talking about how we’re going to get there at the end of the day,” she said.