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As Oregon reckons with its gruesome racial history, students and educators are organizing to hasten progress toward racially conscious education in schools.
The Oregon Department of Education has been developing ethnic studies standards in K-12 education for more than two years, but some say that state policies must go further to actually build successful curricula. Others are lobbying for more specific and immediate change in their local school districts.
In the Beaverton School District, Sunset High School junior Apoorva Rao started a petition on Change.org to “add Black and LGBTQ+ history to the BSD curriculum” on July 1. It has collected more than 5,000 signatures in the past three weeks.
Meanwhile, Portland Community College student Madeline Cano challenged the Oregon Department of Education to “require Oregon schools to teach the history of redlining and segregation.” Nearly 9,000 people signed her petition before it closed June 15. Cano posted an update to the petition explaining that she had discovered HB 2845, an ethnic studies bill passed by the Oregon legislature in 2017 that implements Oregon’s racial history into K-12 education by 2026. She re-opened the petition to instead call for lawmakers to fund ethnic studies curriculum development and professional development for teachers.
HB 2845 made waves in 2017 as the first statewide bill in the country to require ethnic studies education in a K-12 context, said Amit Kobrowski, the ODE specialist in charge of the development of specific grade-level standards. But students are getting impatient as the state moves slowly to create mandatory standards, and as Cano said, many aren’t aware of the law’s existence.
Rao said her conversations with the Beaverton School District have focused on increasing the weight and value of student perspectives via a student panel, an effort meant to shed light on the progress being made toward culturally conscious education and to advocate for more concrete outcomes.
“They say that they’re working but if that’s the case why hasn’t something been done?” Rao said. “A lot of what they’re doing isn’t tangible. It’s being done behind a veil, and you can’t see past it.”
Students also have been largely absent in deliberations surrounding the state’s ethnic studies standards. Current draft recommendations and the revision process have relied on the input of culturally-specific community organizations and a diverse group of teachers, Kobrowski said.
A committee composed of approximately 14 community organizations issued draft standards in June 2019 that clarify the contours of future ethnic studies education in Oregon. Beginning in kindergarten, students grapple with issues of identity, difference and, eventually, social injustice. In fourth grade, eighth grade and through high school, several standards specifically acknowledge teaching Oregon’s cultural and racial history in tandem with national and global learning objectives.
Currently, a content panel composed of educators from around the state is examining and revising those standards, with the goal of putting them before the Oregon Board of Education before the end of 2020. Districts will have until 2026 to adopt any approved standards into their social science curriculums, a gap that will hopefully facilitate teacher training and pilot testing of the standards prior to official implementation, Kobrowski said.
“For many of our teachers, the history of marginalized groups is not something they were exposed to in their own education,” Kobrowski said. “That’s why we’re giving school districts this longer lead-in time to 2026, to think about how they’re preparing their teachers instructionally and also content-wise.”
Place-based education offers route forward
The standards’ emphasis on Oregon’s own relationship with race, discrimination and injustice channels a concept called “place-based education,” or learning about broader issues by understanding how those issues manifest in one’s own community. They also echo current calls by Oregon students like Cano to acknowledge the stains of racial injustice upon a supposed progressive hub.
For Oregon’s and Portland’s Black history specifically, two educators at the Cottonwood School for Civics and Science, a charter school known for its place-based approach to instruction, devised a comprehensive curriculum that reveals how schools might implement ethnic studies standards in the future. Known as “Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs,” the curriculum, initially designed for sixth graders in 2010, has been employed in recent years as a model for other ethnic studies classes and curriculums.
Lisa Colombo and Sarah Anderson, who are white, created and disseminated the curriculum with funding from national grants, including one from the U.S. Department of Education four years ago. In 2018, the project received another grant from the Library of Congress to digitize the curriculum and make its contents freely available to educators across the country. With that boost in funding, Colombo and Anderson have organized several workshops with teachers in the Portland metro area and other places in Oregon who expressed interest in using the Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs curriculum in their own classrooms.
The curriculum relies on a jigsaw model, a learning method in which students become experts in one topic rooted in Oregon’s Black history by independently studying primary sources before sharing their findings with their peers. Those 110 primary sources, scrupulously gathered by Anderson and Colombo from city archives, the Oregon Historical Society, the Oregon Encyclopedia, the Portland State University research library and other databases, grant students an untainted view of history from which to draw their own conclusions, Colombo said.
“The students have so much ownership over their knowledge,” Colombo said. “It’s not the same thing as reading a textbook. They’re building it as historians.”
Darrell Millner, an emeritus professor at Portland State University and the former chair of its Black Studies department, advised Colombo and Anderson on their curriculum, offering sources and revisions to portray an honest narrative. To avoid the intentional exclusion of Black experiences in Portland’s traditional history, he said, primary sources are crucial to proper racial literacy.
“We have systematically made [Black issues] invisible,” Millner said. “If all we do for this generation is lead them to the primary documents and let them draw their own conclusions, I think that would be a tremendous step forward from the miseducation that we as a society have delivered for so long about these particular issues.”
Based on their experiences exploring systemic racism in the classroom, Millner and Colombo acknowledged that barriers exist in terms of fostering constructive discussion and intellectual growth among white and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students. Colombo said the racially inclusive curriculum at the Cottonwood School challenged her sixth-graders’ positive perceptions of Portland, but the students’ exposure to local racial injustice ultimately empowered them to take action.
“Even though aspects are difficult and hard to have conversations about sometimes, they leave with this feeling of, ‘oh my gosh, all this stuff is going on, but here’s how I can change things in my own personal life and here’s what I can do,’” Colombo said.
Even more important than preparing students for challenging conversations, however, is preparing social science teachers to appropriately teach a revised history of America and Oregon, which often necessitates a reexamination of their own historical education, Anderson and Millner said.
“[Teachers] have to be willing to admit that in many cases the education that they’ve received in the past has simply been harmful miseducation,” Millner said. “Until you can understand the need to re-educate yourself, then you’re not going to find the energy or commitment to do the things that are going to be helpful to your students.”
Anderson and Kobrowksi said that the most common concern they heard from white teachers was not based on whether ethnic studies should exist in curriculums at all, but how to confront mistakes as an educator unfamiliar with race education and without experience as a racial minority.
The push to fund HB 2845
According to Anderson, teachers’ uncertainty surrounding how to teach racial history — and for teachers outside of Portland, where to even start collecting sources on their local history — proves that funding for professional and curricular development is a necessary follow-up to HB 2845’s passage.
Colombo, Anderson and other contributors to the Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs project, such as Portland Public Schools administrator David Martinez, have hosted teacher training workshops and actively disseminated the curriculum to other schools and districts, but they needed multiple rounds of funding to do so, Anderson said.
And Oregon teachers not in the Portland metro region have an additional challenge: finding primary sources and information unique to one’s own region. That, Columbo said, also takes time and resources. Anderson pointed to the Experience Oregon exhibit recently established by the Oregon Historical Society, which includes a culturally comprehensive exploration of the histories of different areas in Oregon, as a place where they’re using their own funds to direct teachers to a starting point for curricular development.
Funding for curricular development must be supplemented with significant support for professional development and re-education, Anderson said. That includes providing a supportive and knowledgeable community to address unintentional mistakes that happen during instruction for teachers unaccustomed to educating on Black history and other neglected histories.
Particularly as standards become mandatory across all districts and schools, both teachers who are eager to introduce ethnic studies into their lessons and teachers who are reluctant to do so will need substantial new tools to fulfill the standards, which the state should provide, Anderson said.
Kobrowski said ODE plans on offering some regional professional development workshops closer to 2026, when Oregon schools are universally expected to begin ethnic studies instruction. But many school districts, Kobrowkski said, typically fund and organize their own professional development for curriculum adjustments, which won’t change for ethnic studies standards.
Anderson, however, suggested that without funding from the state, school districts won’t necessarily dedicate enough resources to teach ethnic studies thoughtfully and comprehensively, even with ethnicity-conscious social science standards in place.
“If it’s a mandate from the state without funding, then it’s an empty pledge,” Anderson said. “It’s the state saying, ‘we think there should be ethnic studies standards and students should be learning oppressed histories of our area, but we don’t care enough to make it happen.’ How do they think it’s going to happen? Teachers are going to do this in their free time?”
Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs, while a detailed model for other schools’ curriculums, also almost exclusively focuses on Black history, meaning efforts to improve students’ historical understanding of other marginalized groups in Portland will have to start mostly from scratch, Colombo said.
Oregon Senate Bill 13, which also passed in 2017, funds curricular and professional development through ODE — and already has comprehensive lesson plans associated with it — for the mandated study of tribal history in K-12 education. But no other racial history-focused teaching effort has received state money.
Alongside her new petition to fund the Ethnic Studies Bill, Cano posted a video on Facebook calling upon interested parties to assist with a larger pressure campaign on public officials, including letter-writing and phone calls to relevant local and state officials. She also offered a blistering critique of the optics of passing curriculum overhaul with no funding.
“It was a bill that appears to be sent out to make someone look good,” Cano said in her video on Facebook. “Not only was it sent out with no funding, but many teachers across Oregon are unaware that the bill exists.”
For now, as the state and school districts work to ensure that still-evolving ethnic studies curricula fulfill the original promise of the Ethnic Studies Bill, Rao notes that based on comments she received via a Google Form soliciting student perspectives on Black and LGBTQ+ history, the persistence of whitewashed history classes continually harms BIPOC students.
“One of the biggest things I saw was it hurts to not learn about where you come from and it hurts to be ignored in every history class,” Rao said.