South LA teacher earns national acclaim for ethnic studies advocacy

The push to make ethnic studies a staple within the California education system received nationwide attention when a South Los Angeles teacher was named the National Education Association’s Social Justice Activist of the Year.

Jose Lara

Jose Lara, dean at Santee Education Complex, was named the National Education Association’s Social Justice Activist of the Year.

Jose Lara, who is a dean at Santee Education Complex, said he believes in making ethnic studies a mainstay in California classrooms because schools are “Eurocentric.”

“[Curriculums] don’t speak to minority students or students that have been historically marginalized or have been oppressed,” Lara said to Intersections. “Minorities are literally on the margins of textbooks.”

Ethnic studies aims at heightening cultural understanding of all ethnicities through a range of classes, including African American history to Chicano studies and also Asian American studies.

“When I was teaching, students felt empowered because they knew about their history and contributions to the US,” Lara said. “It made students want to learn more and become better students.”

This push began as a grassroots effort within Southern California, with Lara, who is also the vice president of the El Rancho board, co-sponsoring the proposal in that district. The high school teacher observed that ethnic studies are generally taught as electives within the K-12 system and not given full attention until college.

Lara formed Ethnic Studies Now Coalition which continued to lobby for the expansion throughout the region. In November, LAUSD became the second school district in California to make ethnic studies a requirement for high school graduation, with a 6-1 vote from the School Board. A pilot program will begin this fall and by the 2018-19 school year every LAUSD student must complete at least one semester of ethnic studies.

In total, five districts throughout the state have standardized ethnic studies, according to Lara.

NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said Lara was selected for his “rabble rouser” tendencies.

“Jose Lara embodies this tradition, and his work illustrates how we make our mark on the world – as educators who understand the fearless power of collective action,” Garcia said in a statement.

Lara’s vision of a more inclusive school curriculum engages all students by teaching them about their own culture as well as the intersectionality between ethnicities. He said he believes the state is on the right track, but “we’re not finished yet.”

“It’s important for students to learn about themselves and others in multifaceted ways and learn about their lives,” Lara said. “It makes them matter.

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