By Published: May 23, 2022

Students at Centaurus who designed a new ethnic studies course

Dani Lee, second from right, works with Centaurus High School students in Lafayette during an ethnic studies seminar that Lee and other CU staff are helping to implement district-wide. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

Alexis Campos and fellow juniors at Lafayette’s Centaurus High School have a big dream: They want their school to offer an ethnic studies course dedicated to exploring culture, identity, race and ethnicity.

Now, with the help of students and staff in CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program and administrators at Boulder Valley School District, they’re getting closer to seeing that vision become a reality. This spring, the students began developing a curriculum for the first-of-its-kind social studies elective class, with hopes of launching it at Centaurus and districtwide in 2023.

Supporters believe the new class is BVSD’s first and only course to take a generalized approach to ethnic studies. By adding it, the district joins a growing number of states and districts across the country that are diversifying their curriculum.

“I want people to have a better sense of who they are and how their culture brings different aspects to their identity,” said 17-year-old Campos. “I love the idea of being able to see people who look like me, sound like me, talk like me. It’s a great way to create a sense of community where anybody can come together and speak about similarities or things that make them unique.”

Centaurus students working with Soraya Latiff at CU on new ethnic studies class

Soraya Latiff, assistant director of the public achievement program at CU Boulder, left, works with Centaurus High School students on an assignment in Lafayette during an ethnic studies seminar that Lee and other CU staff are helping to implement district-wide. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

The student-led initiative stemmed from discussions with undergraduate coaches and staffers through Public Achievement or PA, a youth civic engagement and community organizing program that each year brings together more than 250 BVSD students and 100 CU Boulder undergraduates to explore issues such as social justice, immigration, equity and racism.

Students split off into teams to brainstorm, develop, research and implement a community-based project. Teams at Centaurus and Angevine Middle School, also in Lafayette, meet each Friday to work on their projects.

“Whether it happens within their time in PA or later, the program helps give students an understanding and a knowing that their voice, their agency, their experiences have inherent value,” said Soraya Latiff, CU Boulder’s assistant program director. “They can actually create and change important things.”

The national program was developed at the University of Minnesota (now at Augsburg College) in 1990 by Harry Boyte, a former field secretary for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.. CU launched its PA program—part of CU Engage, a community-based learning and research center within the School of Education—in partnership with BVSD and the “I Have a Dream” Foundation of Boulder County in 2008.

Many BVSD students become involved with PA while they’re in middle school and continue through high school. Some Centaurus juniors involved in the program first began contemplating the ethnic studies course idea in seventh grade — many identify as Black, Indigenous or other students of color, and they felt that existing classes were not adequately representing their cultures.

Though the district currently offers a course that covers the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and modern race relations, the students wanted to explore other identities, too, and focus on more joyful aspects of culture, including dance, food and the arts.

With encouragement from PA and an introduction to district leaders, those discussions are now shifting to action.

“Engaging young people is so important because we’re the ones who are going to be living through the changes that are happening right now, but we aren’t necessarily the people with the formal decision-making authority,” said Dani Lee, a CU Boulder junior and one of the undergraduate coaches working with the Centaurus students on the course. “One thing that’s so empowering is that adults are listening to us and to our students.”

Local action fueling a national movement

Universities first began offering ethnic studies programs in the 1960s as a result of the civil rights movement. In recent years, the curriculum has been expanding to younger students, with California, Oregon, Indiana, Connecticut, Vermont and Washington legislatures voting to require ethnic studies curriculum in high schools and, in some cases, elementary schools. Beyond that, many individual school districts are also adding ethnic studies courses.

Research has linked ethnic studies courses with better attendance rates, higher graduation rates and better academic performance, among other outcomes.

The students are now working with Lynn Gershman (AmSt’95), the school district’s director of academic services, to determine how they’d like to structure the course, what they’d like it to cover and who they’d like to teach it.

“I love the idea of students advocating for what they want to learn,” said Gershman, who, while attending CU Boulder in the 1990s, majored in American studies, the closest major to ethnic studies offered at the time (CU Boulder created its ethnic studies program in 1994).

The Boulder Valley Board of Education will need to approve the class, a step that Gershman hopes can be accomplished in late fall so the Centaurus students can enroll in the course for spring semester of their senior year.

With board approval, the course will go into BVSD’s official course catalog, which means any high school in the district can offer it, Gershman said.

For students like Campos, that’s confirmation that their voices—and their actions—really do matter.

“It really doesn’t matter how young you are, if it’s something you really care about and you really want to see change, it doesn’t take somebody who’s much older or much more mature than you — it really just takes you and your voice to accomplish something,” he said.