Student petition leads to two new courses

High school student activists called on school officials to “bring education into the 21st century.”

South Whidbey High School is introducing two new courses to its curriculum next year in response to a student-led campaign for improved education on contemporary social and scientific issues.

The new courses, environmental science and ethnic studies, will both be offered during the 2021-22 school year.

Demand for these classes arose from the student body itself — particularly from a youth activism group called United Student Leaders.

South Whidbey High School students Maggie Nattress and Annie Philp founded United Student Leaders, or USL, in October 2019. The organization’s initial focus was on climate change. Nattress said before the pandemic hit, USL led 30 weeks of protests against Wells Fargo and Chase banks, both of which are large investors in the fossil fuel industry.

When USL members decided to bring the climate discussion to their school district, improving education around climate change was a natural first step.

“The environmental science class was a way to get climate change, and all of the various important aspects of global warming and the way that our world is changing and evolving, in a classroom and in a setting that allows students to learn,” Nattress said.

As more students joined USL, the focus expanded to include not only climate change, but a whole host of social issues the various members were passionate about, leading to the second new class the group petitioned the school for — ethnic studies.

Sophomore Jackson Murphy had already contacted the school board independently about introducing an ethnic studies class into the curriculum after seeing repeated instances of racism at school.

“I had talked to both my middle school and high school principals about the use of hate speech in our school and the lack of anything other than white history being taught,” Murphy said. “All they really wanted to know was names and punishing, and I didn’t feel like that was going to teach anyone anything.”

When USL learned about Murphy’s petition, they connected with him, merging their efforts to influence the school’s curriculum into one cohesive movement, which they called Transforming Education.

USL members authored two petitions to garner support for their request. They collected electronic signatures from students, educators, parents and other community members, then sent the letters to the school board.

The first letter, dated Sept. 28, 2020, was a general explanation of the Transforming Education movement and the importance of student involvement in education. It received 335 signatures.

The second letter, dated Jan. 12, 2021, gave a more detailed explanation of the proposed courses and why students felt they were necessary to their education. It racked up 480 signatures.

“We can no longer teach a white-centric view of the world, its many places, and peoples. Nor can we ignore the climate crisis and its threat to our collective futures. If we aren’t properly educated on these important topics, then we run the risk of repeating the actions of historical oppressors,” the second letter reads. “We hope that SWSD will honor its duty to its students and its community and add these classes which will be steps toward bringing education into the 21st century.”

Since receiving USL’s petition, the superintendent and the school board have been meeting with USL representatives monthly to plan the new courses, which they approved, and discuss other changes the students want to see in the school.

South Whidbey High School Principal John Patton confirmed the environmental science class, offered to juniors and seniors, will be taught by a current staff member. This new class won’t be required but students can count it toward lab science and/or Career and Technical Education credit.

Ethnic studies will be required for all freshmen. The school will hire a new instructor to teach it, and interviews for the position will take place next month.

Murphy, who will be part of the interview team for the ethnic studies instructor position, encouraged other youth who want to be agents for change to be loyal to the drive inside them.

“If you want to do it, if you feel the need to do it, you’re going to feel way better if you do it than if you don’t,” he said. “Seeing the change in your own community and making that change yourself is really powerful and empowering, so I’d say just do it.”

Nattress seconded Murphy’s statement.

“Find your people,” she added, because it’s easier to get out of the comfort zone with a support network.

Administrators spoke positively of their experience collaborating with these student activists.

“I have found working with these students to be a wonderful opportunity to hear the voices of our students and the priorities they have for their future and ours!” wrote South Whidbey School District superintendent Josephine Moccia in an email to The Record.

“They have helped us make significant progress in continuing to offer relevant courses,” Moccia said.