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A Texas high school is piloting the state’s first-ever Asian American studies course. Could politics stand in its way?

By Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune

A Texas high school is piloting the state’s first-ever Asian American studies course. Could politics stand in its way?” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Indira Moparthi doesn’t remember many Indian families living in the different neighborhoods across Texas, California and Illinois where she grew up. Hers was often the only one.

Once, neighbors complained because there were too many holiday decorations on their front porch. Moparthi’s family felt singled out and, in an effort to not stand out, they stopped celebrating Indian holidays in America.

That’s why when one of her Round Rock High School classes in her junior year celebrated Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, she felt a sense of joy she hadn’t felt since she last celebrated the holiday about seven years ago. Students wore kurtis, a traditional Indian attire, and could even get henna tattoos during the celebration about a month ago.

“It was so refreshing seeing people so open to learning new things and trying new things, but also just the fact that we were able to celebrate it without having so much stigma and disgust surrounding such a beautiful culture,” she said.

The class where the celebration happened was an Asian American ethnic studies course being piloted at Round Rock High School this year, the first step for it to get full state approval. The course, the first of its kind in Texas, looks to educate students on how Asian Americans have impacted U.S. history. Texas currently offers three other ethnic courses statewide, focusing on Mexican American, African American and American Indian/Native American studies.

Advocates for the course chose Round Rock ISD to launch the pilot because the number of Asian residents in Williamson County has increased by about 126% since 2010, according to U.S. Census data. People of Asian origin are the fastest-growing population in Texas.

For the course to be available to all Texas districts, it needs to be approved under the state’s Innovative Courses program, which allows school districts to pilot courses that are not required under the state curriculum. The Texas State Board of Education then evaluates the course again and votes on whether to designate it an innovative course. If so, the course becomes available to all districts, if they choose to offer it.

The earliest Round Rock ISD can apply for the course to receive this designation is September 2024, said Lily Trieu, interim executive director of Asian Texans for Justice, a nonprofit fighting discrimination against people of Asian origin. The organization worked with the school district to launch the course.

Trieu said the Asian American studies course was envisioned last year, soon after conservative groups pressured SBOE members to delay updating the state’s social studies curriculum over concerns that the changes aligned with “critical race theory.”

In 2021, Texas passed a law targeting critical race theory, an academic, university-level discipline that examines institutional racism. Educators say critical race theory isn’t taught in K-12 schools but it has become a shorthand for conservatives to criticize what they perceive to be a liberal bent on how race is taught or discussed in public secondary schools. Voters last year elected several new members into the SBOE who campaigned on banning “critical race theory” from schools. Most recently, the board rejected many textbooks because of how they described climate change.

The updates to the social studies curriculum would have included the adoption of an Asian American ethnic studies course statewide. The delayed changes would have also highlighted Asian Americans’ contributions to society and changed how some events in American history are characterized. For example, the word “internment” would be replaced with “incarceration” when discussing how Japanese Americans were forced from their homes and detained by the U.S. government after the Pearl Harbor attack during World War II.

The Asian American studies course being piloted in Round Rock could also face backlash as it deals with other tough and controversial topics in American history, like the treatment of Chinese workers in the construction of the transcontinental railroad and the political organizing in the Asian community that was spurred after the increase in anti-Asian hate amid the pandemic.

“The biggest roadblock to offering these types of courses are always the adults. It’s the politicians,” Trieu said.

Marissa Pérez-Díaz, a Democrat who has represented South Texas on the SBOE for the last 10 years, feels like the board has been more skeptical of efforts to make the state’s curriculum more inclusive after new, more conservative members were elected last year. None of the newly elected board members who ran a campaign promising to combat “critical race theory” responded to interview requests.

But Pérez-Díaz is hopeful that the proposed Asian American studies course will gain approval, saying the state has a good track record of approving ethnic courses.

The need for the course

During the pandemic, Texas saw an increase in discrimination and violence against people of Asian origin. Trieu said one of the best forms to combat hate is education.

“There’s just a really deep misunderstanding and a lack of knowledge … of what it means to be Asian American all across this country,” she said.

At least 19 states offer some sort of Asian American studies course, with seven making it part of their mandatory curriculum.

Mohit Mehta, assistant director at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Asian American Studies, helped design the Texas pilot course’s curriculum and said Texans of Asian origin need better representation. History classes tend to portray Asian Americans as either “good workers” or victims of wrongdoings, Mehta said.

Mehta and Trieu said the pilot course allows students to learn American history from a perspective they can relate to, creates a safe space for people of Asian origin to talk about their experiences and struggles, and helps give them a sense of belonging.

Ann Nguyen, who also helped launch the course and teaches it in Round Rock High School, said that in nine years of teaching she’s never had a class full of students who all wanted to be there to learn about a particular slice of history.

“It gives me hope for the future,” she said.

Mehta said ethnic studies course benefits the long-term success of a district and its students. Research has found that students who take ethnic studies classes have higher graduation rates. He said that’s because students use their critical thinking skills in these courses and feel a greater sense of belonging.

For Moparthi, the class is essential for getting rid of stereotypes and helping students broaden their understanding of other cultures. Along with Diwali, the class also celebrated Hanukkah in an effort to be inclusive of other cultures, she said.

“There’s a lot of happy things that we do as well to acknowledge other people’s histories and heritage, and we also feel like ancestry acknowledgments kind of bring us closer to one another,” she said.

Challenges ahead

Nguyen knew she had to teach the class, if only because of her sense of commitment to the kids who have been clamoring for it. But she was hesitant at first.

She mainly teaches Advanced English II and Advanced Placement Literature at Round Rock High School, and she gave up her conference period, time usually set aside to grade papers and meet with her team, to devote time to the Asian American studies course. Now she takes more work home.

She also knows a course like this could be controversial and put her in the spotlight at a time when debates on how race and history are taught in Texas have led to book bans and the dissolution of diversity, equity and inclusion offices at public universities.

“I’m not telling [kids] how to think. I’m just presenting information and fostering a space for them to communicate, so I’m trying to feel more brave in this space,” she said.

Trieu said it’s hard to predict what the politics of the board will be when their course is presented for approval next year. She said the focus of those who have helped design and push for this course should be to make sure it meets the needs of the students who have asked for it. Last year, a group of students spoke to SBOE members to advocate for crafting such a course.

“If it weren’t for the students, I’m not sure this would happen,” Trieu said. “What we’ve really done [with this course] is create a climate that meets student needs.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/12/19/asian-american-studies-texas-round-rock-isd/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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