Ethnic Studies course to be added to 21-22 course catalog

Raghav Raj | Staff Writer

At their January 26 meeting, the Mason City Schools Board of Education unanimously approved the proposal for a new Ethnic Studies course at Mason High School. The course, a single-semester Social Studies elective available to all grades at the high school, is set to be included in the MHS 2021-22 Program of Studies, meaning that students will be able to enroll in the course this upcoming school year.

As the first course at Mason to primarily focus on learning about marginalized communities, the Ethnic Studies class sees the district taking a step forward to address and patch up gaps in the curriculum that have cast the district’s recent efforts in promoting diversity and inclusion into sharp relief. 

The efforts — from revamping the Safe Schools tip-line for incidents of racism and bias, to the creation of a student-led peer-to-peer support team — have emerged from the district as part of the “Inclusive Excellence” initiative, which was originally introduced in late 2019 and has since grown into a central “rock,” or focus area, for the district to prioritize. The Ethnic Studies course serves as an extension of this initiative, as a means of bringing these sorts of nuanced conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion directly into the classroom.

A major contributor in developing the Ethnic Studies course was former MECC teacher Soroya Smith, who currently serves as Mason City Schools’ Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Learning Experience Designer (DEI LED), a new leadership position unveiled at the beginning of this school year to oversee and manage Inclusive Excellence goals. Alongside MHS Associate Principal Dr. Robyn Jordan, Smith played an instrumental role in laying out the course proposal presented to the school board in December.

Smith said that the Ethnic Studies course primarily came to fruition off of what the administration was hearing from students. 

“A big part of our process, especially during our initial proposal of the course to the Student Achievement Committee was focused on centering the students, listening to them and hearing what they had to say so that we could determine whether there was genuine interest in this course,” Smith said.

In order to get a reading of how students felt about the course, Jordan — a co-writer of the course proposal along with Smith — mobilized Social Studies faculty at the school to send out a survey to their students, which laid out a synopsis of the proposed Ethnic Studies course and asked the students if they would consider taking it if it were offered.

The results, as Jordan said, “spoke for themselves.” Approximately 300 students said “yes,” they would be willing to take the course if it were offered, and over 500 students expressed interest, answering that they would “maybe” consider taking the course. 

“There was clearly a desire to have an opportunity to learn about different cultures, to be able to dive in deeper, and to have that learning actually count for credit,” Smith said. “Especially considering that a lot of our students have already taken the initiative to do that learning and reading on their own, and especially considering that they’re connected enough to hear about other schools nearby offering these courses? We want to give them those opportunities at Mason as well.”

From the example syllabus presented alongside the course proposal in December, it is evident that the curriculums offered in neighboring schools played a big role in the development of Mason’s Ethnic Studies course. 

While the base standards set by the state for Ethnic Studies have been set in place, framing the class around segments focused on American History, Modern World History, American Government, and Contemporary World Issues, the fact that the course is an elective allows for Mason to pull from multiple areas. As such, the proposed Ethnic Studies curriculum takes an omnivorous approach, drawing from the course curriculums at Walnut Hills, Dublin, and even the Los Angeles Unified School District.

While there is still lots of development for Ethnic Studies to undergo before the 2021 fall semester arrives — from finding designated faculty to teach the course, to gathering the needed non-copyrighted educational resources — it is clear that both Jordan and Smith see a lot of promise in what the course brings to Mason.

“Especially at a time like this, we have to be listening to and learning from each other, and it’s the district’s responsibility to create these spaces where this communication can happen,” Jordan said. “We want to be able to provide an environment that fosters this dialogue, where our kids can leave their armor at the door and engage with each other.”

Smith said that she agrees, and is particularly excited about the lasting impacts of the course, and other efforts like it. 

“It’s truly, deeply encouraging to see our students have this desire, this hunger in their heart, to learn about other people,” Smith said. “In using this class and our DEI work to promote that learning with our students, we’re able to connect them with experiences outside themselves that open up their worldview. And especially considering that they’re the society, that they’re the future, it’s wonderful that we’re able to open them up to experiences that continue making all of us more empathetic as humans.”

Graphics by Lexi Brown