Racial justice advocates say students of color often don’t see themselves reflected in public school curriculum in Vermont, but supporters of an ethnic studies bill are having a tough time getting traction in Montpelier.
About three weeks ago, the Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools invited people to a special forum in Montpelier. Members of the coalition were looking to boost support for a piece of legislation that definitely needed the help.
Among them was Zymora Davinchi, a young woman of color from Hazen Union High School, in Hardwick.
Davinchi has gone to public schools in Vermont her whole life. Over all those years, she says one thing never changed:
“I grew up never learning anything about myself. … I didn’t see anyone in my classes that looked like me,” Davinchi told a group of about 30 people gathered in the Statehouse. “I didn’t see a face that reflected my own. I didn’t hear experiences that reflected my own.”
Davinchi wasn’t talking only about the lack of racial diversity in Vermont classrooms; she was also referencing the people of color missing from her high school textbooks and her history lessons.
“It’s like when we only go into school and we see white faces and male faces, and none that reflect our own, it takes a toll on who you are,” Davinchi said.
The legislation Davinchi was in Montpelier to promote would have assembled a task force to examine curriculum in public schools across the state. The task force would then come back to the State Board of Education and recommend ways to make that curriculum more inclusive for people of color and other marginalized groups.
“So this bill is so important to me, because I never thought that this would be possible,” Davinchi said. “I never thought that anyone would care.”
Emerging research suggests that ethnic studies courses do more than make kids feel valued. They might even make them better students.
Around 2010, the San Francisco Unified School District launched an ethnic studies pilot project. Emily Penner, an assistant professor of education at UC Irvine, said the course — taught to at-risk ninth graders — helped kids look at the impact of race and culture on their own identities.
“[The school district] got to a moment where they wanted some evidence about the effects that the class was having," Penner said. "And they were facing a decision about what do with the class."
Penner co-authored a paper that analyzed the effects of the course on students who took it.
The study found that students who took the class saw their GPA jump by an average of 1.4 points. Classroom attendance figures jumped by 21 percentage points, and the total number of credits students earned saw a statistically significant increase as well.
“We were not expecting to find anything of that magnitude at all,” Penner said.
Penner said the ethnic studies course appears to have better equipped students for the challenges they would likely face, in the classroom and in life, by delving into “concepts like values affirmation, helping them see their own abilities as flexible and capable of growing, rather than fixed.”
The results were especially notable for Hispanic boys, Penner said.
“Helping give them forewarning about stereotypes," Penner explained, "and how those might be negatively impacting their educational experiences."
Penner said research into the ethnic studies field is still young and that it’s premature to make any grand conclusions about its efficacy. But she says that research is “trending in a positive direction.”
While nearly everyone in the Vermont education community supports the goal of a more inclusive classroom curriculum, there’s less consensus on how to get there.
Krista Huling, who chairs the Vermont State Board of Education, said she and her fellow board members support the sentiment driving the ethnic studies initiative.
“We do like the idea of going through and thinking about where is bias in the curriculum,” Huling said. “But … we think that’s more of a local level. I’m not sure how Montpelier’s gonna fix that issue.”
Huling said the ethnic studies task force envisioned in the Vermont legislation “is very different from what’s already in play in Vermont.”
And she said the problem might not be with the education standards or curriculum in Vermont schools, but with the ways those standards and curriculum are being interpreted and administered.
Huling said the board is looking at more local-level interventions, like bias training for public school educators. She said if educators get that kind of training, then they might improve ethnic studies offerings of their own volition.
Members of the Vermont Senate are also reluctant to move forward with the ethnic studies task force — a version of the bill passed by the Senate earlier this year stripped the task force language from the legislation.
But Bennington Rep. Kiah Morris, a sponsor of the ethnic studies legislation, said the task force was in many ways the triumph of the bill, because it would engage Vermonters of color in the curriculum assessment process. Morris said that element of the bill would make it likelier to ferret out bias in existing educational offerings.
“It is asking for a level of community engagement and expertise that we have not seen in quite some time,” Morris said.
Huling said Morris offers a fair critique.
“I mean, the state board is overwhelmingly male and it’s overwhelmingly white,” Huling said.
But Huling said the involvement of people of color in the process doesn’t necessarily hinge on the creation of a special ethnic studies task force.
“I would hope they keep pressure up and keep coming to the state board and giving us their feedback, even if a bill does not pass,” Huling said.
Whether a bill passes or not will be decided shortly.
The ethnic studies legislation failed to make it across the finish line during the regular legislative session. But Gov. Phil Scott has called a special legislative session, to resolve a budget impasse between him and lawmakers.
The ethnic studies coalition will be trying to convince lawmakers to revive the legislation this week.