According to students, educators, and community-based organizations involved in the passage of the standards, ethnic studies opens up new and important ways to get students engaged in school.
“Children develop their ethnic and racial identity early. They understand how they are perceived at a very young age,” says Anthony Castaneda, Policy Manager for Latino Network. “Once we move into elementary and middle school, if the curriculum doesn’t reflect their identity and they can’t see themselves in it, you begin to lose students. You see the disengagement that can predict later outcomes in high school.”
In a state where Black students, Indigenous students, and students of color graduate from high school at lower rates than their white peers, equitable access to engaging and culturally relevant learning is vital. Indeed, research shows that ethnic studies boosts student engagement at school, increases graduation rates, and nurtures a sense of belonging for all students.
Ji Reichle, a senior at Lake Oswego High School and a leader with the Oregon Association for Student Councils, believes that Oregon’s ethnic studies standards will make an enormous impact. She knows firsthand how educators play a pivotal role supporting students to discuss complex and at times challenging topics.
“My ancestors didn’t go through Ellis Island. As students, it’s important that we all feel like our history is being told in the way it should be told. It should come from multiple perspectives so we hear every side of a story,” says Reichle. “We want students to feel excited and engaged and willing to share. It creates a better environment where everyone feels more included, and I think that’s at the heart of empowering students.”
The benefits of ethnic studies will extend to all Oregon students, explains Reichle, and can even shape a brighter future for the state. “I’ve always been a firm believer that education is a solution to most of our problems,” she says. “If you can understand more perspectives, your empathy is hopefully going to grow. We can find solutions and there will be less division.”
Bringing student perspectives forward and even empowering them to guide classroom learning is a hallmark of ethnic studies pedagogy, explains Jenoge Khatter, a former middle school educator now serving as Social Studies Specialist for the Eugene 4J School District. “This focus on student voice and honoring student identity, and acknowledging all the diverse identities and intersections that are coming into our schools, is going to make classroom conversations and experiences extra rich and special to be a part of,” he says.
According to Khatter, Oregon’s ethnic studies standards can spark shifts in teaching and learning that improve student experiences and outcomes: “How much are kids enjoying school? How much do they feel drawn to school? How much do they feel cared about, seen, and appreciated? When our education system recognizes students’ perspectives and agency, that should translate into higher attendance and achievement.”