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Nonwhite Reading List Sparks Raucous Debate

Education: In stormy school board hearing, many students support quota proposal while critics attack it.

March 20, 1998|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — In hours of passionate and polarizing testimony Thursday night, dozens of teachers, parents and students demanded that the school board adopt a proposal requiring that more than half the books read by high school students be written by nonwhite authors.

Put forth in the last month by two African American members of the San Francisco school board, the proposed reading quota has placed the city in the national spotlight and surrounded the curriculum with what one school board member described as "a cloud of hysteria and misinformation."

In raucous testimony, constantly interrupted by hissing, cheers and applause, dozens of residents pushed aside a literature that they described as irrelevant and worthless to their lives.

"In four years at George Washington High School, I only read one book by an African American," said Kisha Burdett, a senior. "Do you think that is enough to get me into a black college? No! You guys need to get your lists together."

Genevieve Ransom, a 13-year-old middle school student, complained that during February--Black History Month--she studied "The Diary of Anne Frank."

"It's a nice story," she said. "But during Black History Month we should be studying about black artists and achievers."

Twenty-three-year old Jiny Kim spoke passionately about how well she did at San Francisco State when her classwork spoke to her life.

"I went from a C average to being put on the dean's list when I started taking ethnic studies," she said.

But not all the testimony was in favor of the quota system. Linda Blondis of San Francisco, a former teacher at UC Berkeley, was interrupted over and over as she testified that "the goal of education is not to instill self-esteem. The goal of education is not to tell people about their cultures. One of the things education helps you do is expand beyond your world. You already know what your world is."

Before Thursday's meeting, as the initial firestorm raged, the proposal's authors eased the quota from a required seven of 10 books by nonwhite writers to a required four of seven by nonwhites. One school board member demanded that "age-appropriate" books by gays and lesbians be included. The proposal would cost $2.5 million to implement.

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