Forest Grove High School students can now take an elective Latino Americans course.

COURTESY PHOTO - A CREATE staff member helps a student at CREATE, a Forest Grove High School alternativ program for students who need small classes. When Geneva Jackson incorporates Latino studies into her classes, students are almost always hungry for more.

While teaching a unit on the displacement of Mexican Indians a few years ago, Jackson even saw two students change their mind about skipping school because they were so enthralled with the lessons.

That's why she's taken the initiative to create a Latino American studies course for high school students in the Forest Grove School District. The school board voted to approve the curriculum at a December board meeting, and it will be available at the start of the second semester later this month.

"I think it's important to give students an awareness and pride in the experiences and contributions of Latino Americans — and you don't have to be Latino to gain that," said Jackson, who emphasizes the American part of the Latino American course. "This is our history. American history is a combination of the history of all these peoples."

The course is adapted from the six-hour PBS documentary "Latino Americans," which breaks up the work into shorter-length videos and provides accompanying lesson plans for teachers to use. Jackson — along with Pacific University students Emma Ferns and Alyshia Smith — spent the last year adapting the PBS-provided content, using some of the materials verbatim and creating many lessons of their own.

Jackson saw the PBS documentary several years ago and has been thinking about how to reach students with it ever since.

It was a bigger, more time-consuming project than the trio expected.

"We don't have the time and resources or a special curriculum department," said Jackson, who is pleased with the end result. "But we tried our best to turn it into a class similar to other online social studies classes."

The class is an online and self-paced elective.

The class will cover Latino American history, culture, music and art, as well as more current issues such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Students will watch the PBS documentary in small chunks and respond to what they've seen with worksheets, writings, reflections and a final project. Jackson even hopes to gather those enrolled in the class for group discussions.

"It's not just reading and spitting it back," said Jackson, who emphasized critical thinking, contemplative writing and thought exercises in the assignments. "It's kind of a college-like experience."

Jackson is also the executive director of CREATE, an alternative education program contracted to provide supplementary services to at-risk youth in the Forest Grove School District. CREATE — separate from the district's Community Alternative Learning Center on Taylor Way — serves 25 to 30 students at its office in Cornelius' Centro Cultural building.

Students in the program need a smaller educational environment for a variety of reasons and many are behind in their credits. The student-to-teacher ratio is very low. Some students stay in the program for just a few weeks, while others are there for years.

While Jackson designed the course for CREATE students, the course will also be offered to traditional Forest Grove High School students.

"We are willing to share this with absolutely anyone," Jackson said. "The high school expressed interest in this right away."

FGHS Vice Principal Brian Burke said school administrators are excited to offer the course and will monitor student and teacher feedback.

"We hope that students learn more about the Latino American culture and the impact it has had on our society and world today," he said.

The class comes just as recent state legislation requires ethnic studies courses in all Oregon schools by 2020. Gov. Kate Brown signed House Bill 2845 last year, directing the Oregon Department of Education to convene advisory groups tasked with developing ethnic studies courses that will fit into social-studies standards.

Jackson would like her Latino American studies class to create better informed students and future citizens while fostering a greater appreciation for others.

"This is an important step in helping students bridge the cultural biases that divide our nation," said Jackson, who also pointed to studies suggesting multicultural curriculum increases students' chances of graduating from high school by 10 percent.

"Our culture tends to group people together and there are a lot of stereotypes about individual groups," Jackson said. "So you need enough information to battle those stereotypes so you don't buy into them yourself."

She's also hoping the course will reach Latino students.

Jackson remembers taking one of her Mexican students to observe a CREATE board meeting, which is made up of principals and top school administrators from neighboring districts along with representatives from the county juvenile department and other organizations. When the meeting ended, the student, surprised by the racial make-up of the group, asked Jackson, "Are they Mexican?"

"He hadn't ever had the opportunity to see so many Latinos in positions of power before," Jackson recalled, "and his understanding was so narrow that he didn't think they could come from the same place as him."

After that, the student participated on the CREATE board for a few years and eventually went to college.

"I want them to have pride in who they are," Jackson said of her students, "and realize there's no limit to what they can do."

By Stephanie Haugen
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times
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