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Despite outcry from students, Utah high school drops ethnic studies class

Textbook for Jordan High School course likely conflicts with State School Board rule, district says

Jordan High School in Sandy is pictured on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020.
Jordan High School in Sandy is pictured on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. Students are decrying the school dropping an elective ethnic studies course they anticipated would be offered in the spring.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Students from Jordan High School are decrying the school dropping an elective ethnic studies course they anticipated would be offered in the spring.

Five students urged the Canyons School District Board of Education to make the concurrent-enrollment course offered through Salt Lake Community College available to students.

The course, Introduction to Ethnic Studies, was to be offered at Jordan High School for the first time this academic year as a concurrent enrollment course. It had not been offered in Canyons School District schools previously, said SLCC spokeswoman Erika Shubin.

The course “explores the experience of ethnic groups and the social, economic, political, cultural and historical forces that shape the development of these groups. The class also provides a framework for analyzing discrimination and prejudice in the experiences of people of color, fostering communications across cultures, and enriching individual cultural identities,” according to the course catalog.

Mollie Scott, a senior and president of Jordan High’s debate team, told the Canyons School Board that several students needed the course to complete their general education certificates, which certify that a student has completed the general education requirements of an associate of arts or associate of science degree.

Taking the course would have other benefits, she said.

“As a biracial American, I think it’s immensely important for not myself, but my peers to learn more about my culture and other cultures in this country. ... This class not only offered me an opportunity to learn more, but offered my peers the opportunity to learn more in an academic climate and instead of looking to social media or the internet or other ways,” Scott said.

School district spokesman Jeff Haney said the school had to drop the planned offering after educators discovered the text for the course conflicted with a recently adopted Utah State Board of Education rule that defines what concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion cannot be taught in public schools.

Haney said the textbook “Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations,” by Joe R. Feagin and Kimberley Ducey, likely conflicts with the State School Board rule. The rule was drafted after the Utah Legislature called itself into special session this spring and passed resolutions intended to ban the teaching of what lawmakers consider “harmful” critical race theory concepts.

The resolutions urged the State School Board to ensure certain concepts aren’t taught in Utah schools including that one race is inherently superior or inferior to another race, that an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race, and that an individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race.

“As we examined the content of the class, it appeared that it would violate state board rule,” Haney said.

Jordan High School educators asked the college if a substitute text could be used.

“The answer we got was, ‘No,’” Haney said. “The argument that was being made by Salt Lake Community College is that the contents of the course didn’t violate the state board rule.”

Shubin said the community college invited class instructors from the district to suggest other textbooks that would meet course standards. “Unfortunately, we didn’t receive any recommendations,” she said.

The high school is working to come up with a substitute class that it could offer in the spring working with another institution of higher education.

While Utah has limited what can be taught in schools, a number of states recently passed laws that require ethnic studies curriculum in public schools, according to Edutopia, a website published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

“In March 2021, California approved an ethnic studies curriculum for all K–12 schools; in April, New Jersey passed a new law that requires all public schools to offer courses on diversity and inclusion. Connecticut will require high schools to offer Black and Latino studies starting in fall 2022, and Indiana, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, Washington, Virginia, and the District of Columbia have already drafted standards for, authorized, or mandated ethnic courses for schools,” an Edutopia article states.

Proponents say the K–12 curriculum has remained largely Eurocentric, outdated and disconnected from the growing population of students of color in the United States.

“Culturally responsive, diverse materials tell a richer, more accurate story that helps all students feel seen and included in their learning, say advocates, who point to research that shows ethnic studies courses can boost students’ academic performance and attendance, as well as helping them develop a better understanding of race, identity, and equity,” the article states.