Celebrating 10 years and 500 episodes
In this episode we connect with Linn Lee, the History and Social Science Curriculum Specialist for Santa Ana Unified School District, and Jerry Almendarez, the Superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District. This school year is the inaugral implamentaion of a district wide graduation requirement of a full year of Ethnic Studies. Linn and Jerry discuss the success of the curriculum as it stands and how it will grow. They share the importance of Ethnic Studies for both understanding the world around you and seeing yourself represented in it. "There might be things holding you back from doing things right now and I understand that, but you have a lot of assets that you bring to the table, from who you are, from your background, from your family, and let's build on that to then bring you into the academic realm."
Our public podcast service, paired with millions of discounted books curated into topic-themed collections, provides guidance and tools to support lifelong learning.
Jerry Almendarez is the Superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District. Almendarez has a master’s degree in Educational Leadership from the University of Redlands, and a bachelor’s degree in business/finance from Cal State San Bernardino. Almendarez’ career in education spans 27 years, and includes experience as a classroom teacher, an assistant principal and a principal. He has also taught as an adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University and the University of Redlands, and in March was named a 2019 Ted-Ed Innovative Educator.
Linn Lee is the History and Social Science Curriculum Specialist for Santa Ana Unified School District. Lee has a a master of education degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a bachelor’s degree in history from UC Santa Cruz.
The Santa Ana Unified School District is the 12th largest school district in the state of California. In June 2020, the Santa Ana Unified School District Board of Education voted unanimously to adopt a resolution creating a new graduation requirement that will mandate students to complete a one-year course of ethnic studies before receiving their diploma, making Santa Ana one of the first districts in the country to require this curriculum starting this school year of 2022-2023.
"Centering on identity and honoring their ancestry and ethnicity really helps students understand their place in this world, and it makes them much more committed to their education and to their contribution to a broader society..."
Engaging the World: Leading the Conversation on Ethnic Studies is a series of discussions about race, ethnicity, indigeneity, and the strategies used in historical movements for social transformation, resistance, and liberation.
Guests: Jerry Almendarez and Linn Lee
Host: Jon-Barrett Ingels
Produced by Past Forward in partnership with Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Chapman University.
[00:00:00] Jerry Almendarez: Given the political turmoil in society at the time and all of the divisiveness, it was the opinion of this governing board that we need to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to understand other cultures and how they operate with the mindset of, we're going to be champions for our kids because it's about the kids. It's about what type of adults the kids will be and what type of leaders they'll be.
[00:00:26] Linn Lee: As teachers, I was trained this way, we teach our students to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We teach them, you work hard and you can get anything you want. Well, Ethnic Studies flips that upside down and says, “You know what? There might be things holding you back from doing things right now and I understand that, but you have a lot of assets that you bring to the table, from who you are, from your background, from your family, and let's build on that to then bring you into the academic realm.”
[00:00:53] Interviewer: Chapman University's Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and Past Forward present Engaging the World: Leading the Conversation On Ethnic Studies. In this series, we explore ethnicity through race, religion, indigeneity, and cultural identity. Examining how the stories of these communities are told and their histories are taught, if at all. Through art, education, scholarship, and activism, our guests fight to have their voices heard, their heritage celebrated, and their contributions to the fabric of American society recognized.
In this episode we connect with Linn Lee, history and social science curriculum specialist for Santa Ana Unified School District, and Jerry Almendarez, superintendent of schools for Santa Ana Unified School District. Their district is one of the first in the nation to develop a multi-disciplined Ethnic Studies program required for high school students to graduate. This school year of 2022/2023 is the inaugural year of their program. Here are Linn Lee and Jerry Almendarez.
In June of 2020, June 9th of 2020, your board voted unanimously to require an entire year of Ethnic Studies for high school students to graduate and it started this year. Congratulations! That is such an achievement and I'm so excited that this exists, and I'm just curious how it is going so far. Linn, I'm assuming you would have the boots-on-the-ground experience of how everything is going.
[00:02:32] Linn: Yes, absolutely. It's going great. We have 38 teachers teaching Ethnic Studies courses right now, over 2000 students taking the Ethnic Studies courses. We've trained every single teacher through a three-day intensive training. I now have a team, a team of three people, and myself who are supporting these teachers in the classroom, going into classrooms, visiting classrooms, doing demos, providing resources, providing lesson plans, providing them support.
As you know, this is not an easy task because usually, people with degrees do this kind of teaching. [chuckles] Of course, it's different at the high school level in terms of the difference between college and high school. In high school, it's a lot more… We want to make it a healing class for students, and so really teaching teachers how to connect with students on a very deep level is a critical component of our class. That's why SEL strategies are critical for our training.
[00:03:43] Interviewer: This isn't just blanket Ethnic Studies where there's the Ethnic Studies class that everyone takes. You have multidisciplinary courses available. I'd love to know a little of what the decision-making process was in choosing those different courses. Just talk a little bit about how that work is being implemented.
[00:04:10] Linn: Great. Yes, we have core courses as well as electives that are being offered right now and that we are still creating and developing into 3 years from now, well, we should have 28 courses that students can take. All throughout their high school career, they could take an Ethnic Studies course in all of their core courses and electives. Right now we are offering Ethnic Studies English in the ninth grade, Ethnic Studies English Honors. We have Ethnic Studies Theater Arts, Ethnic Studies Visual Arts, and, of course, we have the elective, the Ethnic Studies standalone elective that's offered at the high school and also at the middle school.
We also have English at the middle school as well but we plan on offering Ethnic Studies math. I just talked to the math curriculum specialist this morning. They were working on a Statistics class. We're going to create Ethnic Studies Science. We have Ethnic Studies: Asian American studies, Native American studies, African American studies, all coming down the pipeline as well.
It's going to be a very robust program for our students because we feel like this is really something that's going to really-- Centering on identity and honoring their ancestry and ethnicity really helps students understand their place in this world, and it makes them much more committed to their education and to their contribution to a broader society as opposed to just focusing on, "I just want to figure out how to get a job." Which, a lot of times our students are just, "I don't care about school. I want to work." Now it's combining the two and making sure they understand how this is really important for them in their lives.
"The competition because of technology is global, and so these kids that have talents and gifts, that are multilingual and trilingual, when they get out of high school are that much more competitive than somebody like me who only speaks one language, but do they know that?"
[00:06:03] Interviewer: For any listeners that are not familiar, what is the demographic of the student population? Maybe, Jerry, you'd be able to talk about that.
[00:06:14] Jerry: Yes, approximately 85% Latino. Majority of our student population is of Latinx, reflects that population. One of the interesting experiences that I had as a superintendent when I first got here, I went to go visit a couple of our leadership classes at a couple of our high schools and the first comment out of this conversation was that they wished they had more diversity. Walking into this district, the outside lens looking in, I'm thinking, "It's overwhelming with diversity here," and they were, "No, no, no, we want to learn about other cultures. We want to learn about African Americans. We want to learn about Asians and other cultures of the world."
That was a real “aha” moment for me because looking through that lens that I've always looked through and then being emerged in this environment and seeing the need and the desire for these kids to really want to understand outside cultures and experience them and get to know them really just touched my heart. Hearing the stories when they come back. They compete all over the country and they come back and their experiences really are sometimes very challenging and very frustrating because they're in this heavy Latino community with this rich culture and then they go to other states and that aren't reflective of the Latino culture, and now find themselves in a completely foreign environment and their US citizens and they've been in the country all their lives.
It is such an honor to be able to provide the Ethnic Studies classes because our kids want to know about other cultures. I made a comment yesterday, going back to the question that you had asked about the importance of this, because of the advancement in technology and how the future is going to look different than it is now, we're no longer competing locally for the job market regionally or even nationally. The competition because of technology is global, and so these kids that have talents and gifts, that are multilingual and trilingual, when they get out of high school are that much more competitive than somebody like me who only speaks one language, but do they know that? Do they realize the opportunities they have? Are they exposed to those experiences that could give them opportunities to be actually employed by other parts of the world? That's what Ethnic Studies we're trying to bring to light that there are options out there and we can create a level playing field for all individuals.
[00:08:56] Interviewer: Linn, I'd love for you to talk a little bit about, from a curriculum level, point of view, the importance of young people learning about cultures and heritages that are outside of what they're familiar with, with what they grew up with.
[00:09:11] Linn: Oh, it's critical. It helps when they understand other cultures' ways of being, ways of thinking, it expands their experience into worlds that they've never been into. I've taken my students to just simple things like Little Saigon is right next door to Santa Ana but the majority of students have not been there, and that's the largest population of Vietnamese outside Vietnam. I literally, on a field trip, take them to go have pho, which is a Vietnamese dish, and they absolutely love it. They're like, "My goodness, why haven't you shown this to me before, Ms. Lee? How come I wait until I'm like 17 to have this and I've been living here all my life?" and now they go there all the time.
They know about pho because there's pho places closer to their home and they have an appreciation. Plus we have a speaker that talks about Little Saigon and how it started with the refugee crisis after the Vietnam War, the Civil War in Vietnam where it collapsed on the side of the US. They get a history lesson, as well as a cultural lesson, and their whole world goes like, "Poof." Like, "Oh my goodness, I thought Santa Ana was all Latino and it's not. There's a lot of Vietnamese people in the community in here." It's very rich to bring in different cultures.
[00:10:46] Interviewer: I imagine there's a level of empathy that is discovered from hearing these stories and experiencing these cultures.
[00:10:57] Jerry: I was going to say the value of learning about other cultures is taking the experiences of other cultures that have been successful in certain ways as society and learning about them and saying you know what? I'm experiencing something similar in my culture in my country. If it worked over there, how can we make it work over here whether it'd be learning how to design water filtration systems or learning how to design clothes, or learning some sort of technology with the advancement of technology changing and the language is a global language, in a sense, and the problems are global problems.
If we're living longer, then how are we going to feed ourselves as a globe and how are we going to clothe ourselves and how are we going to govern ourselves? I think by exposing our students to these different ways of thinking, these different cultures, we can take what we identify as being good in those areas and then adapt them to our lifestyle or our solutions to the problems that we have in our country. Global warming is a good example. That affects everybody, so how can we collectively together as a globe learn how to take care of those people that are hardest hit in those parts of the world that could impact all of us? Those are some examples of learning about other cultures.
[00:12:20] Interviewer: Then there's also the element, of course, of seeing themselves and seeing their own cultures and their own histories reflected in what they're learning in school which I imagine does wonders for just self-recognition and self-identity.
[00:12:41] Linn: Absolutely. I think that all teachers bring in different ethnicities into the classes on the holidays like Martin Luther King and Caesar Travis Day and things like that. Ethnic Studies does that every day. We bring in the stories, and stories of not-so-famous people. We bring in the stories of everyday people and we actually focus on the stories of our students.
We have an assignment called Your Migration Story and Your Story, which is basically really delving into giving them questions to take home to their parents that are not just your elementary school questions like, "Hey dad, where are you from?" It's more like, "Hey dad, tell us about an experience that is important to you. What's an object in your life that's really important and why is it important to you? Who is it passed down from?" Usually, it's a heirloom that's been passed down from a great-great-grandfather or a great-great-grandmother and it represents the village they came from or the tradition that they carried on, or something like that. Those kinds of exercises really validates our students' heritage, history, cultures, families, ways of being in their family homes, because a lot of times our students are made to feel like they have to check their culture at the door or check how they are at home at the school door and then they come into the classroom and they have to assimilate into this normalization of what we see as the classroom.
[00:14:21] Interviewer: Right. It's that code-switching.
[00:14:24] Linn: Exactly. We switched the code-switching into like, "No, your ways of being are beautiful, acceptable, and it's academic." It's very research-based. They learn some pretty heavy-duty academic skills learning about their families, writing about their families doing academic projects on them. It's a very empowering class for any student, not just students of color, but I've had white students in my Ethnic Studies class who said, "I never knew I was part German." [laughs] It's all about honoring where everybody's from and honoring that heritage that makes them so beautiful and unique.
[00:15:13] Interviewer: You touched on this a little as far as bringing the faculty's traditions around the holiday times, but how important is it to have diverse faculty in this course study?
[00:15:27] Linn: It's important, I would say that, but I think what's more important because it's not always possible, you have to work with what you have. It's more important to have an ethnic studies lens than to be a diverse person. What am I talking about? A person of color, you know what I mean? Because you can be a teacher of color and not have what I call an ethnic studies lens. Because then- an ethnic studies lens it goes against the grain where, as teachers, I was trained this way. We teach our students to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We teach them, "You work hard and you can get anything you want."
Ethnic Studies flips that upside down and says, you know what? There might be things holding you back from doing things right now, and I understand that, but you have a lot of assets that you bring to the table from who you are, from your background, from your family. Let's build on that to then bring you into the academic realm. Any teacher from any background can approach what we call a student-centered pedagogy, which is very focused on bringing out the best in our students based on where our students are from, who they are, and honoring where they're from and who they are. I would say diverse is always better but not absolutely necessary.
[00:17:00] Interviewer: California passed Assembly Bill 101 requiring one semester of Ethnic Studies, and that is implemented, it is starting two years from now. I'm wondering what's the impetus behind requiring a full year and expediting that requirement ahead of California's? Because it would be easy to just say, "Well, the whole state has to do it. We'll just wait until the '25-'26 school year."
[00:17:29] Jerry: This district has been fighting this battle for a long time. They actually passed an Ethnic Studies course prior to making it a graduation requirement. There have been ups and downs in the implementation and lots of political challenges that they collectively have been able to sustain. I walked in at the beginning stages of the conversation about making it a graduation requirement. I think the logic behind that was given the political turmoil in society at the time and all of the divisiveness, it was the opinion of this governing board that we need to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to understand other cultures and how they operate, and so they did not wait for anybody. They were like, "No, we need to do it now. This is a party for us today," and so they unanimously approved it.
At the time, the critical race conversation was kicking in. It was a bold step, a brave step, a courageous step in the middle of all of this controversial dialogue that's been taking place throughout the country, but with the mindset of we're going to be champions for our kids because it's about the kids. It's about what type of adults the kids will be and what type of leaders they'll be. For Santa Ana, it's creating a culture of world leaders that are open-minded and accepting of others.
[00:19:03] Linn: Yes, absolutely. Just building on that, we actually had the electives since 2015 and we had been trying to expand it to the other schools since then but the requirement made it so that it was vastly spread out to all of the other schools.
"We're in a pocket of Orange County that is a low socioeconomically disadvantaged and a blue-collar community. They're not so much worried about the politics as they are worried about providing opportunities for their families and education."
[00:19:23] Interviewer: You touched on this a little bit, Jerry. Your neighboring school board, Placentia and Yorba Linda voted this year to ban Critical Race Theory. I'm wondering what pressure, if any, does that put on you and what you're trying to achieve considering how conservative the majority of Orange County is.
[00:19:47] Jerry: We're in a pocket of Orange County that is a low socioeconomically disadvantaged and a blue-collar community. They're not so much worried about the politics as they are worried about providing opportunities for their families and education. When we began this charge and started to experience a little bit of pushback, not a lot of pushback, but a little bit of pushback, the Critical Race Theory is not-- One, can anybody define what that is? Really define what it is and understand it. Two, through our lens, it's history. It is history. That's what it is. We're not indoctrinating anybody. We're not blaming anybody. We are teaching history and to make students aware of things like the Black Wall Street, the history of that, to make students aware of Mendez v. Westminster. Those are the type of historical events that we're making our students aware of. Honestly, for those two points in history that I had talked about, I didn't even learn about them until I was out of college.
[00:21:00] Interviewer: Same.
[00:21:01] Jerry: My thought is like, wow, if I would've known that back then, especially Mendez v. Westminster-- When I heard about that, there was a sense of pride in me as a Latino, because I'm thinking, man, this battle was actually fought before the other one. They're both important, but it just gave me a sense of pride. I had a student reach out to me and ask me about the Black Wall Street. I could see the pride in him as he was talking all about it, educating me as a superintendent about an event in history that I never even knew happened. Then months later, the movie comes out and I'm in awe, and just, wow. It's just providing those opportunities. The political environment that surrounds us is isolated to those particular areas of the cities and the cultures of Orange County. We're unique for the reasons I described. There's, I wouldn't say resistance, but there is a desire to just learn more and understand more.
[00:22:05] Interviewer: From what I gather, it seems the teacher, student and parents are all in support of that curriculum and that way of teaching and it just seems like it's the higher-ups that are--
[00:22:20] Jerry: Oh, yes. Don't get me wrong. I want to say we have adults within our system that are pushing back, but not as much because Linn and her team are doing a really good job of educating and creating awareness. We do have community members that are uncomfortable with what their definition of Ethnic Studies is, but we have students as ambassadors that are explaining to the community, "Here's what it is. It's not about blaming anybody. It's not about pointing fingers. It's not about indoctrinating anybody. It's about educating the community and the students about their history."
[00:22:59] Interviewer: This is what happened.
[00:23:00] Jerry: This is what happened.
[00:23:00] Interviewer: I imagine that some of that pressure and some of those voices must get louder when you think about implementing this program into earlier grades where, in my opinion, I think that curriculum is more valuable because, by the time students reach high school, they've already established viewpoints and biases and their identities. Is that a hurdle as far as expanding to K-12?
[00:23:30] Linn: I would say not with regards to Ethnic Studies. I think that the hurdle has been the LGBTQ topics that have come up, but with regards to discussing culture and history and race and bringing in a lot of different materials, there's no pushback at all and we're delving into that program right now.
[00:23:56] Interviewer: I grew up in California and my early education included Columbus and we'd studied the California missions. There are some things that have already changed and we've eliminated celebrating subjugation. Jerry, like you said, there's a lot I didn't know until I was an adult. Really it was-
[00:24:17] Linn: Me too.
[00:24:17] Interviewer: It was in AP US History when I first learned about Chinese immigrants and Cesar Chavez and the Japanese internment. Though all of those were like relegated to a paragraph in an AP US History book. I'm curious as you're slowly starting to roll out the plan for K-8, I know you said Linn, that you do have Ethnic Studies courses or Ethnic Studies English in middle school, but what does it look like to expand to the younger grades?
[00:24:52] Linn: For the younger grades, we won't have a yet Ethnic Studies course per se. It's more working on what we call cultural relevant teaching and materials that will be integrated specifically into English and History and all grade-appropriate of course. Things like bringing in a book called Para Todos, which is about a Mexican family that comes to the United States illegally and what they have to go through. It's an elementary book. They're just their experiences, number one, and what they have to go through in crossing. Then number two, what they have to do in order to survive living in the shadows.
That's actually a lot of the lives of our students. The fact that that story is being brought into their lives at Grade 3 and 4, they can actually talk about it, you know what I mean, and not have to pretend or what I call, "Fake it till you make it," type of thing, but actually draw out the real experiences of what they're going through so that the teachers can help them and can support them.
[00:26:09] Interviewer: Is there a timeline in place of when this will be fully expanded through K-12?
[00:26:17] Linn: We have the secondary timeline mapped out completely. We do not have the elementary mapped out completely yet, but that will be working in the very near future.
"When you talk about how Native Americans were treated back then, it wasn't fair. You don't have to get into the gory details of genocide and death and the Wounded Knee, what happened at Wounded Knee, that can wait until high school, but you can talk about how Japanese Americans used to live here in large numbers, and then they were all taken away because they were accused of being a spy when they really weren't. That's not fair."
[00:26:29] Interviewer: Now, I know that there's a challenge of trauma. When we're dealing with a lot of these marginalized communities, a lot of their history comes from trauma so we're looking at telling these stories to younger students. What is that balance of explaining the trauma and the tragedy without leaning too much into it?
[00:26:58] Linn: Well, one thing that we are actually in the midst of dealing with right now is how to teach about Native American history appropriately in the elementary levels because right now, Native Americans are talked about a lot, but they're talked about in a very objectified manner. They're used on worksheets a lot. A lot of times, there's art things, art projects that the kids do, and things like that. You know how kids are when they're young. They have a very strong sense of fairness, like, "That's not fair. How come you got more than me?" A lot of this is around the discussion of fairness.
When you talk about how Native Americans were treated back then, it wasn't fair. You don't have to get into the gory details of genocide and death and the Wounded Knee, what happened at Wounded Knee, that can wait until high school, but you can talk about how Japanese Americans used to live here in large numbers, and then they were all taken away because they were accused of being a spy when they really weren't. That's not fair. This is the story of that child who went through this. It's using their language at their level to just discuss on more, I want to say a little more superficial level instead of getting into the actual deaths and [chuckles] gory details that we get into in high school.
[00:28:30] Interviewer: I'd love for both of you to say what does the term American Dream mean to you both? Then what does the American Dream look like for both of you?
[00:28:44] Linn: When I was a child, I really didn't feel like it applied to me when people mentioned and talked about the American Dream, because I never felt like I was American because I was always asked where I was from, and it wasn't good enough to say that I'm from Berkeley. They said, "Where's your mom's born? Where's your dad born? Hawaii and LA? Oh, I mean your grandparents. Where were they born? San Francisco?" It wasn't enough for them. I'm like, I was about as American as you can get. My great-great-grandfather was one of the transcontinental railroad workers that helped build one of the greatest feats in the United States at that time period. I was bullied so much that whenever people said American, I always thought they were talking about White people.
It wasn't until I would have to say in my adulthood, like the both of you had mentioned, when I learned about all the history and all these cases, I learned about-- I got really active in the Vincent Chin case. I don't know. So many of your listeners should look up that case, but that's when I really got active in the community and I started to stand up and say, "I'm American just like everybody else, and I'm going to stake my place in this country as if I had all the rights that everybody else did. For me, my American dream is creating that multicultural,diverse pluralistic society. I guess my path is through Ethnic Studies because that's my career. [laughs]
[00:30:20] Jerry: Well stated. My definition is just creating an opportunity. The American dream is an opportunity to compete on a level playing field and allowing individuals to-- you still have to work hard to reap the benefits and you have to have the skills to reap the benefits but to level the playing field so more individuals have access to those resources, but also to create a sense of belonging and a sense of pride in who you are regardless of what you look like, regardless of your ethnic makeup or your gender preference. To have a sense of pride knowing that you have opportunities to create a better life for yourself.
[00:31:09] Interviewer: If you would like to continue the conversation, visit chapman.edu/wilkinson to hear all of the lectures from this series. To access recommended books from our guests for further learning and for more socially conscious content, visit us pastforward.org or follow us at Apple, Spotify, or wherever you podcast.
Past Forward is a curiosity company dedicated to educational accessibility.
Search millions of discounted books with next business day shipping in the US.