Ethnic Studies in Bellevue

by Terry Jess

Bellevue School District may not be the place that pops into your mind when you think of racial justice work, including ethnic studies. It is a historically wealthy and white district, and while for many of our students the wealth remains common, the district’s student population has racially diversified in the last twenty years. In 2016, Bellevue became the city with the largest person of color population in the state. However, this diversity led to very little change in the district’s curriculum or how we educate our students.

Seven years ago, through the hard work and dedication of select groups of students and educators, the tide began to shift. Much is owed to the creation of an equity department, and the excellent leadership of the departments two leaders: Jose de Jesus Melendez, and for the last four years, Shomari Jones. In 2013, building principals were asked to form Equity Teams, and I was selected by my principal to join our team. I had been interested in anti-racism work ever since I heard Angela Davis’ challenging words in my teacher prep program and was excited to learn more. Our new Equity Teams received 8 full release days over 16 months to attend equity training.

During my first four years of teaching, I looked for how I could “fit” more culturally responsive teaching into existing curriculum but was left unsatisfied with the results. The conversations I had been having and books I poured myself into demanded more for our students. I began exploring the idea of creating an elective class on racial issues in our society. Fortunately, Shomari had also been exploring a potential black history class in our district and from this shared desire, we created a committee of social studies teachers in various buildings who were interested. This group included some amazing teachers like Lane Lopus of Newport HS and Matt Daniels of Interlake HS.

I had a connection to Tim Jones, a political science professor at Bellevue College, and reached out to see if he would be interested in partnering. Based on our committee’s vision, he thought we would be better suited partnering with BC’s Department of Cultural & Ethnic Studies. This is when the amazing Kimberly Pollock entered the picture. She welcomed us into her course and was willing to not only partner in the development, but to oversee the implementation of this course as part of the College-in-the-High-School program. Now we would be able to offer our students a class that allowed them to explore the history and issues of race and get college credit for it! This was music to my ears as I was already disillusioned with the AP model.

I took on the course-lead role for our district and we spent a year working on developing the scope and sequence, reading materials, and lessons for the semester long course. Due to the flexible nature of the course at Bellevue College, we were given remarkable latitude in creating curriculum for the course that met the needs of our students. To this day, the course will look different in every building it is taught in. Matt and I each piloted the course three years ago, and it has now spread to all comprehensive high schools and has been melded into the Government/CWA graduation requirement as the second semester curriculum for seniors at Big Picture School, one of our district’s secondary choice schools.

While I am immensely proud of this course and enjoy teaching it more than any course I have ever taught, I can’t get past the viral photo of a student defining privilege as “your history being taught in the core class, and mine being taught as an elective.” Based on this frustration, I scheduled a meeting with Sharon Kautz, the Director of Curriculum for Bellevue School District to ask if we could make Race in the US a graduation requirement. BSD already requires students to take 3.5 credits of social studies, rather than the state-required 3, and so I hoped to use the extra .5 for an ethnic studies requirement. Sharon responded to my request by asking, “Why can’t this be imbedded into all our social studies courses?”

I’ll be honest. I thought she was dismissing the idea and offering a stereotypical “sprinkle some people of color and women into the existing curriculum” type of response. So, I responded that if I were to do that in a course like US History, it would mean a total decolonizing of the curriculum. I would want to throw out the textbook, the timeline, and most every lesson the district currently had. I fully expected a response emphasizing a slow incremental change, but I was completely floored when she said, “So do it.” So… I am.

Our amazing BSD Social Studies Curriculum Developer, Patty Shelton, was on board and scheduled a meeting for all U.S. History teachers in the district in the spring of 2018. At the meeting, I introduced the concept and process of using decolonization as the historical framework to use for the course, and my colleagues committed to using it. We also chose to transition to a thematic approach, rather than the typical chronological, so we could spend more time connecting history to current events and issues. I left that meeting feeling very optimistic that we would be able to create a core U.S. History class, that specifically focused on anti-racism and centering the voices marginalized by whiteness in our nation’s history.

Our district offered some project pay for those who would like to work during the summer, and as it goes, there wasn’t much interest. However, I was able to build a potential scope and sequence and flesh out the first unit on Identity, which centered race. My colleagues were pleasantly surprised when we met in August to have a strong foundation to move forward with piloting the course this year. As we approach the end of the year now, we have been able to put together five units of study.

The course will constantly be a work in progress and should be as we adapt to our students’ needs and interests. I am also hyper-aware that a team of white teachers will inevitably see our own whiteness impact the curriculum and our students. More training is needed; more compensation is needed; more perspectives are needed; and more accountability to our students and families of color is needed. I hope to put the whole curriculum out for review and use by educators sometime this summer, but in the end, I am optimistic about our small revolution and how it is sparking other fires in the English Department and in the work of our SOAR Teams (Students Organized for Anti-Racism).

Race in the US and Decolonized US History are only the beginning of Ethnic Studies in Bellevue. It will take an immense amount of work and failure to create something that truly meets the needs of ALL our students. I often have people ask me, “Why Bellevue? Why don’t you teach in Tacoma or South Seattle if you care so much about race?” The work of ethnic studies is not just for schools with high populations of black, Latinx, and indigenous students. It is for white people. It is for wealthy people. It is for Bellevue. Besides… I enjoy the discomfort that sharing truth brings on this community and my fellow white folx.

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