Diversity and Divisiveness

Reading list, bilingual education spell discord in California

In California, where a number of controversial issues ranging from immigration to affirmative action have sparked national debate, two education-related incidents last week brought the country’s most diverse state back into the spotlight.

The San Francisco School District attracted national attention last week when two School Board members announced a proposal to require high school English and literature teachers to include works by more minority authors.

At the same time, the continuing controversy over bilingual education sustained another blow when the state Board of Education ruled that schools now have the option to teach students solely in English.

What ignited the most intense debate in the Bay Area was the proposed diversity requirement for books. School Board members Keith Jackson and Steve Phillips proposed that seven of the 10 required texts used by instructors–70 percent–would have to be from non-white authors.

The proposal, which is to be up for a final vote next week by the Board of Education, caused quite a stir in the district, which is about 80 percent minority.

Asian Americans make up the largest percentage of the district’s high school students. At least 41.9 percent of the 18,962 high school students are Asian American. Latinos are next with 18.7 percent, then African Americans at 14.5 percent, whites at 12.2 percent and Native Americans at 0.6 percent. Those in other categories collectively represent 12.3 percent of students.

At Lowell High School in San Francisco, where Asian Americans make up 47 percent of the approximately 2,600 students, Asian American student, Bryant Tan, commented on the need for more diverse reading lists within literature courses.

Tan, a senior, said that although his teachers encourage students to read works by minority authors, implementing a districtwide quota that ensures diverse reading lists is a good idea.

“I think that minority authors and a diversity of authors is needed,” said Tan, editor of the Lowell newspaper. “Seventy percent might be too high, but there needs to be one or a couple of books for students to be exposed to.”

Outside of his required reading and coursework, Tan makes a concerted effort to read the works of both notable and less-known Asian American authors.

“Minority authors give perspective on events and topics that people outside of their race don’t understand or don’t often see,” Tan said.

Phillips said he and Jackson came up with the proposal in response to the unfavorable parent and student feedback he received on course curriculum.

“For five years I’ve been hearing from parents and students that the curriculum was alienating and a negative factor for the students,” Phillips said.

His goal is twofold: to engage students through works they might better relate to and to expose all students to a more diverse range of voices and cultural experiences.

While Phillips acknowledges that some teachers incorporate the works of minority authors into their existing curriculum, his hope is to have teachers districtwide do the same.

“That’s the problem, it is inconsistent. And that is the point of the proposal, and we want to ensure that every student gets that kind of curriculum,” Phillips added.

Despite the co-authors’ intentions, the proposal continues to raise eyebrows. In an article that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner last week, Jackson was quoted as saying that as much as 50 percent of students’ required reading should be written by black authors, since African American students were most in need of help. Both he and Phillips are African American.

Some Asian Americans countered Jackson’s assertion. According to figures issued by the San Francisco Unified School District, Asian Americans edge out African Americans for the highest dropout rate among all ethnic groups.

For the 1996-97 school year, Asian Americans represented 10.1 percent of the total high school dropout rate. That figure compares to 9.6 percent of black students, 7.8 percent of American Indian students, 7.1 percent of white students and 7 percent of Latino students.

“That is something that is so often overlooked,” said Gail Kong, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Community Fund, adding that the district’s figures indicate that Asian American students warrant equal consideration when crafting a curriculum that is sensitive to race.

Some Asian American authors applauded the proposal and reinforced Phillips’ notion that students are more easily swayed to read works that convey a voice or experience they might share.

“I think in high school and among younger students the proposal will be more useful, because that’s when we begin to lose students,” said author Chitra Divakaruni.

“If they’re studying something and they can’t relate to the language, customs, values or the characters, then they’re not going to be engaged in their class. And that’s when we begin to lose students, because they say that this has nothing to do with my life,” Divakaruni said.

“I have just seen students brighten up and come alive when they’re dealing with something that they know about, and they can contribute to the discussions, and when they write their papers, they have something to write,” said Divakaruni, who is also a professor at Foothill College in Los Altos, Calif.

Other authors took a much stronger stance in regard to the proposal, and welcomed it as an opportunity to expose students to a vast majority of authors.

“I think minority authors should represent 75 percent of required reading, if you’re reflecting the diversity of the Bay Area,” said Janice Mirikitani, a Bay Area poet and author.

Mirikitani suggested that including works by Asian American authors, as well as other minority authors, is critical, especially to Asian American students unaware of injustices Asian Americans have experienced.

“What embarrasses me a lot is some Asian American students don’t know about the history of the internment, and it embarrasses me that you have to do all this outreach about that and about Martin Luther King …” Mirikitani said.

Mirikitani added that the proposal doesn’t impose a quota as much as it encourages inclusiveness.

“If you exclude your kids from knowing about Toni Morrison, then how can you know whether or not she addresses their needs, or rings anything true to them?” Mirikitani asked. “All students deserve to know Maya Angelou, they deserve to know Maxine Hong Kingston, Carlos Bulosan … they deserve to know the history of other people so they can begin to be empathetic toward suffering, so they can be better, more compassionate human beings,” Mirikitani said.

Tan, the Lowell senior, acknowledges that he’s among the minority of Lowell students who support the proposal. Although many teachers and students are angered by the concept of quotas and the requirements the proposal would inflict on teachers, he said overall, the proposal could do more good than harm.

As he puts it: “Why shouldn’t you have a quota? Isn’t diversity a good thing?”

It’s not an easy question. While San Francisco high schools are still awaiting the verdict on racebased reading lists, proponents of bilingual education witnessed a potential setback.

In another move testing longheld methods of teaching English to limited-English-speaking students, the state Board of Education ruled last week that school districts now have the option to teach all children solely in English. Local districts still have the option to teach children English using a combination of English and their native language.

The board’s action precedes the June vote on Proposition 227, known as the “English for the Children” initiative. If passed this June, it would essentially require all schools statewide to teach children in English only.

While Spanish-speaking students represent the largest percentage of limited English–speaking students in California, Asian Americans are also affected by any changes made to bilingual education. Asian Americans make up more than 200,000 of the 1,381,393 limited-English-speaking students in California.

While the impact of the decision is unclear, one Asian American advocacy group opposing Proposition 227 called the ruling disappointing.

“I think it just opens the door for more school districts to say I don’t have to do it, it’s no longer a mandate, I can ignore these principles,” said Lisa Lim, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action.

“In San Francisco we’ll still have bilingual education, we have a school board and a superintendent who believes in it, but this is not a typical school district,” Lim added.

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