For over 10 years juniors in English teacher Patricia Fels’s AP Language and Composition class have written lengthy, researched essays in which they suggest a change in their community, using argumentative rhetoric and purposeful examples to support their claims.
But this year three juniors have taken the project one step further.
Jack Christian, Gabi Alvarado and Mehdi Lacombe have brought their papers to school administrators to try to effect the changes they presented in their essays.
Christian wrote his essay on press freedom for the Octagon, Lacombe wrote his on implementing an open campus policy, and Alvarado wrote hers on adding an ethnic studies course to the high school curriculum.
Alvarado proposed creating an ethnic studies course that would replace the sophomore World Cultures course.
Prior to having been assigned the essay, Alvarado, president of Chicanx Latinx Student Union (CLSU), had already met with history teacher Sue Nellis and CLSU members junior Yanele Ledesma and senior Esme Bruce-Romo to discuss adding the course. Nellis suggested writing a proposal, Alvarado said.
The next day Fels assigned the essay to her juniors.
Alvarado said that having the course is essential for students from minority backgrounds in order for them to learn about their heritage.
“The school advertises a top-notch education, so we should be learning about other cultures,” she said. “And (adding the course) is a way for other students to learn to be more tolerant (of others).”
Likewise, history department chair Chris Kuipers acknowledged the added inclusivity that would come with an ethnic studies course.
“It benefits all students to have an understanding of the past that includes as many different perspectives and stories as possible,” Kuipers said.
“Fundamentally history is not a singular story of what happened in the past; rather, it is a collection of the shared experiences of humankind.”
But Alvarado said she hasn’t received support from everyone for the change.
“Some (history) teachers have said they think their current curriculum is fine,” she said. “And some students said they didn’t think they should have to learn (about other cultures).”
Additionally, Bruce-Romo experienced some backlash after she sent a Google form to high school students on May 3.
“I’ve heard that there have been a few students who refused to fill out the form because they were totally against the idea of an ethnic studies course,” she said. “They wouldn’t even open the form.”
Seventy-one students responded to the poll, Bruce-Romo said. All responses were anonymous to ensure students could speak freely.
“Over the years, some students have felt misrepresented or underrepresented by the history curriculum,” the Google form description read. “Instead of having two years worth of a Eurocentric history course freshman and sophomore year, (CLSU) hopes to introduce a course that better represents our community.”
Sixty-seven percent of students responded that they felt Country Day’s history classes didn’t cover enough material on ethnic minorities, according to Bruce-Romo.
And almost half said history classes didn’t represent their personal ethnicity. Most students who did feel represented in history classes identified as white or Caucasian, although there were some exceptions, she said.
She said many students also shared their experiences of feeling underrepresented in history classes in the final, optional question asking for additional thoughts or comments.
Alvarado added the poll’s results into her newly revised essay that she gave to Kuipers, Nellis, head of high school Brooke Wells, assistant head of school Tucker Foehl, head of school Lee Thomsen, English department chair Jason Hinojosa, Spanish teacher Patricia Portillo, third grade teacher Kristi Mathisen and AP Art History teacher Liz Leavy.
Then on May 25 representatives from CLSU, the Chinese Club and the LGBTQ+ Club met with Kuipers, Nellis, Wells, Foehl, Portillo, Mathisen and Leavy to discuss adding the course.
During the meeting the students “presented a very clear case for their experiences in classes and how they wished they could have been different,” Wells said.
In fact, Alvarado, who identifies with the Latinx community, said talking about her experiences made her “kinda” break down.
“I started noticing a lot more this year that my classes weren’t teaching me my own history,” she said. “They were also teaching a skewed version of history that painted many people, including Latinx people, in a bad light.
“It really hurts.”
Foehl, who said he went to show administrative support for the students, said discussing the representation of minorities is an important conversation.
“We’re making sure we have windows to understand different people and cultures and mirrors that reflect our own identities,” Foehl said.
However, no definite decision came from this first meeting.
“We want to make sure that the class would be in the right place,” Wells said.
“What form this class takes is still up in the air.”
Although Wells said the school probably wouldn’t offer the course until at least 2019-20, the school has already taken steps to add more perspectives to the English curricula.
“In the short run the English and history departments have significantly changed by adding more voices into the curriculum, so that will continue,” Wells said.
Hinojosa’s senior AP Literature and Composition course focuses on presenting the stories of marginalized cultures.
And next year Foehl, who will be teaching sophomore English, said he will focus on the theme of migration to the West and to California.
“(Students) will read ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ‘The Joy Luck Club,’ ‘Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992’ and ‘Enrique’s Journey,’ which are just some books that fit into the wide subject of ethnic studies,” Foehl said.
Lacombe’s essay proposed reinstating the open campus policy Country Day had almost 25 years ago. Lacombe’s proposal included stipulations that the campus would be open only during the periods before and after lunch and for only upperclassmen with a signed waiver on file.
While writing his essay, Lacombe interviewed Wells, who told him that the proposal sounded “very interesting” and that Wells would like to see how it could work.
So Lacombe emailed Wells the essay when it was done on May 2.
Wells replied with an email saying he would read the essay carefully and “talk to some folks,” according to Lacombe.
“Later Mr. Wells approached me in the quad and told me that his main concern would be people crossing Munroe (Street) since traffic is heavy there, and we don’t have a traffic guard,” Lacombe said.
Wells said he hasn’t implemented his test run of Lacombe’s open campus policy since he is still reading through the proposal and talking to administrators.
But the school has responded to Christian’s essay on freedom of the press for students, inspired by several instances of the Octagon’s censorship over the last two years.
In his essay Christian proposed “establishing clear guidelines for both the Octagon and the administration to operate under” so that most censorship conflicts could be avoided.
Because Country Day is a private school, clear-cut protections for student expression and publications don’t exist, as the Supreme Court student press decisions apply to only public schools. However, the Leonard Law (passed in 1992 and amended in 2006) does protect non-religious, private school students in California from being disciplined for exercising freedom of speech as protected by the First Amendment.
Christian’s proposal suggested written policies for the type of material that could be censored and the formation of an independent board (comprised of a faculty member, a staff member, a Board of Trustees member, a student, a parent, a teacher, a former Octagon editor and an administrator) to create the written policies, if no agreement could be made between the administration and the Octagon.
This board would create “a reasonable set of rules and guidelines for both the Octagon and the administration to follow” and be on standby in case a conflict arose between the administration and the Octagon, according to Christian’s essay.
Next year’s Octagon editors-in-chief (juniors Mohini Rye, Allison Zhang and Chardonnay Needler, Christian and Lacombe) met with Wells, Thomsen and next year’s Octagon adviser, middle school English teacher Emily Eustace, on May 21 to discuss Christian’s proposal.
Thomsen declined comment about the meeting because he said it was a “first conversation.”
The editors-in-chief were advised to make changes to Christian’s proposal, according to Christian.
Now that students and administrators are aware of what each is looking for, the group will meet again to discuss the updated proposal, according to Christian.
“I came out of the meeting feeling very positive,” Christian said. “We had a nice, open discussion about censorship, problems in the past and ways we could both improve.”
Originally published in the June 6 edition of the Octagon.
—By Katia Dahmani