Minnesota schools will soon require ethnic studies. Here’s what that might look like

A standing woman holds a paper of notes with a student
Tenth-grader Po Po reviews his notes with teacher Cassandra Lafleur during an ethnic studies class at Humboldt High School in St. Paul on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Ella Htoo hasn’t had a lot of time to think deeply about who she is or how far she’s come. As a child, she and her Karen family fled Myanmar as refugees and emigrated from Thailand to Minnesota in 2016.

Now, though, in Humboldt High School’s ethnic studies class, the 10th grader has been able to open up, sharing her experiences with classmates and helping quash negative stereotypes about Karen people.

“When I first came here, like people were saying negative things about my culture, so it made me think that we did come here to steal (this country),” said Ella, 15. “I kind of believed it until I learned about it.”

A teacher at a whiteboard in front of a room of students
Students listen as Rachel Nader works at the whiteboard during an ethnic studies class at Humboldt High School in St. Paul on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Understanding the political and social struggles of people of color, Indigenous communities and immigrants is one the goals of St. Paul’s ethnic studies classes. It’s important enough to the district that it recently made the classes a graduation requirement. 

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Similar classes will soon be required across all Minnesota districts. State lawmakers have taken steps to make ethnic studies available in schools statewide. By the 2026-27 academic year, schools must offer ethnic studies as a course that meets social studies, language arts, arts, math or science credits.

University of Minnesota's Jeff Henning-Smith on how future teachers are preparing for the change

A parallel effort is underway to bake ethnic studies into the state’s updated state social studies standards. Following a year of scrutiny including public hearings, a current draft of the proposed standards includes language requiring ethnic studies. An administrative law judge is expected to make a final decision on their inclusion by Jan. 5. 

Supporters say requiring the studies is crucial to Minnesota building a future where its growing ethnicity is understood and respected. Critics say the effort will only divide Minnesota more.

A man sits across from a student at a table
Ethnic studies program manager Mouakong Vue chats with Ramla Mohamed during class at Humboldt High School in St. Paul on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

‘A heavy topic’

A day spent in ethnic studies class at Humboldt High helps to understand the hopes and concerns. 

The 90-minute period is highly focused on student discussion and experience. 

When students arrive, they find their seats and start looking at a list of terms on the board, such as “‘institutional oppression,” ”resistance” and “internalized liberation.” Instructor Rachel Nader encourages them to find real life examples. 

One group talks about their experience of speaking English as a second language. Some of them have been made fun of because of their accent in English. That’s a good example, says their other instructor, Cassandra LaFleur. She moves them to the next part of the exercise: 

“OK, so now how can you step up to build resistance or liberation for that person being oppressed for making fun of?” she asks. “Well, we can tell them it’s a gift to be able to speak more than one language … don’t be afraid that you have an accent.”

LaFleur, who also teaches French, is leading this course for the first time. When she started learning the materials over the summer, she was concerned.   

“Reading the documents, preparing to teach this class, I was like, oh, my, this is a heavy topic.” 

Now, after studying and leading the course, she’s a fan. She believes it encourages students to learn about themselves and each other and to focus on ways to love and stand up for themselves.

A woman wipes down a whiteboard with a cloth
Cassandra Lafleur cleans the whiteboard in her classroom at Humboldt High School in St. Paul on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“Listen, I have an accent in every language that I speak. So even my first language now that I’ve been speaking English for so long,” she said. “We’re learning so much — digging deeper into our cultural background, and what does that mean?... we’re talking about self-love, how to honor yourself and like community critical consciousness.”

Conservative groups led by the Twin Cities-based Center of the American Experiment have pushed back against requiring the classes.

In emails, the organization has warned its tens of thousands of subscribers about various drafts of the new standards that could “generate fear and resentment in students belonging to some racial and ethnic groups.” 

“Ethnic studies embodies a particular academic theory, and set of tools within the social sciences when you look at interpreting historical and social phenomena,” said Catrin Wigfall, a policy fellow at the center.

“‘Marginalized, erased or ignored, systemic power, ways of knowing, systems of oppression?’ That is distinctive social theory and technical vocabulary for ethnic studies,” Wigfall said. “And we believe that violates the requirement that standards not have a specific teaching methodology.”

A student wearing a red sweater talks with a standing person
Amileydi Moreno Flores asks for clarification from teacher Cassandra Lafleur during class at Humboldt High School in St. Paul on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

‘Evidence of success’

Danyika Leonard, a member of the committee that worked to draft the new standards, said the introduction of ethnic studies is a response to both established scholarship and the requests of students who want to see their perspectives and experiences taught and addressed. 

“Our children, our scholars, our community, they had been asking for this,” Leonard said. “This was an opportunity to make sure that our social studies standards are inclusive, and that they embody a fuller story and they embody more perspective. And it invites other people to see themselves in, you know, see the windows and mirrors in their learning.” 

For Leonard, getting ethnic studies into schools is also a way to address Minnesota’s close-to-worst-in-the-nation achievement disparities between white students and students of color.

“We have an opportunity through social studies to … support better outcomes for our babies, and we know that ethnic studies supports academic outcomes,” she said. “It supports graduation, it supports increases in graduation, student engagement and student attendance. This is something that has evidence of success.”

A woman leans on a table as she talks to students
Xue Xiong, ethnic studies specialist with the Office of Teaching and Learning at St. Paul Public Schools, talks with students during an ethnic studies class at Humboldt High School in St. Paul on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Much of the effort on this at the Legislature was driven by listening to students and what they wanted, said state Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton.

“Their stories were absolutely heartbreaking, you know, around not feeling seen, when their cultures are made fun of or they’re targeted for something that’s going on across the world, and it doesn’t really apply to them or to their cultural heritage,” said Kunesh, who authored the bill on ethnic studies that passed this last session.

“There’s just a lot of lack of understanding, a lot of lack of information, a lot of lack of empathy,” she added. Requiring ethnic studies statewide “I feel is really going to help with those sorts of troubles for our students.” 

At Humboldt, Ella Htoo said she’s gained a new respect for her community, for her parents’ experiences and for the value they place on education. 

The course also helped her realize some of the negative stereotypes she had about other groups in her class. Listening to other perspectives and experiences helped her realize how wrong and harmful those stereotypes were, she said, adding that she’s gained tools to help her live her values. 

Posters hang from a string above a classroom
Inspirational posters hang from the ceiling in Cassandra Lafleur’s classroom at Humboldt High School in St. Paul on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“For me, it’s really important that you be kind to other people,” she said. “Not everyone knows English, and not everyone knows other people's language. So like, just take it easy on them,” Ella said. “Everyone should have this class, because like, it makes you learn more about your language and the others.”

Her classmate, 15-year-old Ramla Mohamed agreed. 

“I like the people in the class and how it feels like one community because it’s like, everyone can relate to each other and relate to the same thing,” Mohamed said. “I also like how I'm learning things that I thought I knew, but I didn’t know a lot about.”

Correction (Dec. 6, 2023): An editing error led to the misspelling of Ella Htoo’s name in an earlier version of this story.