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San Francisco Chronicle: Ethnic studies a hit

Classes in S.F. boost grades, attendance to a surprising degree

By Jill Tucker

Taking a ninth-grade ethnic studies course boosted the grades, attendance and course completion rates of San Francisco students who started high school with an academic record that indicated future failure, according to a newly released Stanford University study.

In fact, the academic benefits of the course were so significant, the researchers who conducted the Stanford study said they were shocked by their own findings.

The study found struggling students who took ethnic studies went on to compile a C-plus average in their freshman year, compared with a D average for similar students who didn’t take such a course.

The ethnic studies students completed four more semester courses than the other students and had nearly perfect attendance, the Stanford researchers found.   Ethnic studies focuses on cultural awareness, ethnic identity and making students aware of race-based oppression. A handful of districts, including Los Angeles, require the course for graduation, but critics have attacked it as racially divisive. Arizona has banned such courses from public schools.   

In San Francisco, school district officials created ethnic studies as a pilot program in 2010 and expanded it to all high schools this year, hoping it would make school more relevant to the city’s largely nonwhite student body.   

School board members believed the course would help students feel more engaged, and that in turn, the students would enjoy greater long-term success. They saw the Stanford findings as vindication for their hunch.   

“When you set policy, when you write policy, you're always thinking, ‘What is the impact?’ ” said school board member Sandra Fewer, who led the effort to add ethnic studies to high schools. “When I heard this, I was just sort of over the moon. I just cried.”   

Enrollment varies   

Each San Francisco high school has its own process for enrolling students in the class. Some offer it as an elective, while others assign the course to students identified as at-risk — those with lower grades and attendance in middle school.   

The Stanford study was led by Professor Thomas Dee, director of the school’s Center for Education Policy Analysis. He said that the findings have yet to undergo peer review but that he was confident they were rock-solid.   

He said he understood, however, why outsiders might conclude that the reported benefits of taking ethnic studies “strain credibility.”   

“No one was more surprised by these findings than I've been,” Dee said. “I don't know when my own research has surprised me more.”   

3 schools evaluated   

The study evaluated three schools in the San Francisco pilot program where at-risk students were assigned to ethnic studies. The researchers compared those students with others who didn’t take the course, but had grades in middle school just above the at-risk threshold.   

It’s unclear whether all students would benefit from taking the course, said Emily Penner, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford and coauthor of the study. The research also doesn’t indicate whether the course could help students over the long run in terms of graduation rates or college attendance, she said.   

Fewer said the study’s findings could argue for extending ethnic-studies coursework to middle schools.   

“We’ll see what we can learn from this,” Fewer said, adding that she believes ethnic studies students have already absorbed one valuable lesson: “When you release oppression, you begin to understand you can be anything you want.”   

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: jtucker@sfchronicle.com