Students Say They Want DEI in Course Selections. Registration Says Otherwise.


Andy Aguilera (Lakeside School)

When history teacher Andy Aguilera was first applying to Lakeside in 2021, he made sure to do his research. Students at the time were advocating for a more diverse curriculum and an increase of DEI in course selection, and Andy, whose area of expertise and approach to teaching is “understanding and embracing difference,” was excited.

This is your school… it is what you make of it.

— Andy Aguilera

So in early October, almost as soon as he began teaching, Andy proposed an elective: Latino/a/x in American Life and Culture. “I thought, if any course is going to run, it’s going to be this one, because it aligns exactly not just with the DEI mission of the school but of the [history] department and what they want to do going forward — which is to offer diverse perspectives.” He continued: “That’s the important part of education; not just learning, but learning those values and how we can understand each other.” Yet five months later, Andy would come to learn that out of the 16 approved electives, only 15 would run. Because of low-enrollment, Latino/a/x in American Life and Culture would not. 

Andy had a suspicion this would happen — “I was warned before I proposed my class that most electives don’t run their first year” — but that didn’t stop his confusion when the news finally hit in early March. “For me, it wasn’t just a low enrollment issue but that the one course that isn’t running is the course that meets the DEI statement to a T.”

Why would students advocate for courses centered around DEI and then just not sign up for them?

What’s especially interesting is that “this situation is not the first time that this has happened,” Andy tells me. In 2020, a teacher had proposed an elective regarding the Black Lives Matter movement; unfortunately, it didn’t end up running, and soon after, the teacher left Lakeside. A similar issue occurred with Queer U. S. History, which didn’t run its initial year due to low enrollment. “That should be running right away,” Andy argues. “That should be a thing where if you have five, seven, eight, nine students or whatever… those students care about those classes, and they should have the opportunity to cover that perspective.”

But what causes the low enrollment in the first place? Why would students advocate for courses centered around DEI and then just not sign up for them?

It’s an issue with which both Mr. Boccuzzi and Andy have found themselves grappling. Initially, when the news first broke that he didn’t have enough students to run his elective, Andy was frustrated — but much of that frustration stemmed from disappointment. “I reflected back on my research,” he shared with me, referring to his previous investigations into Lakeside student advocacy. He knew that Lakeside students value DEI — “so where are the students showing up for this?”

Both Andy and Mr. Boccuzzi agree that Lakesiders have a tendency to take “safe classes.” Having heard about teachers or courses from word-of-mouth, students tend to lean toward Lakeside’s most popular electives as opposed to newer ones. Despite Lakeside emphasizing “risk-taking” as one of our competencies and mindsets, when it comes to elective choices, students tend to do the opposite. Mr. Boccuzzi notes, “We have an interesting tension since we know students and adults want more diversity in our curriculum, and when new courses are proposed, students often seem a little shy to try something new because they don’t know what it is.”

Low enrollment makes classes considerably harder to run, and the pattern that students are hesitant to try new courses, even when they advocate for them, only adds to the growing issue. “Our teachers have really interesting ideas for a lot of cool electives that could run. However, it’s not financially feasible for us to run multiple electives where there are three kids in the class,” Mr. Boccuzzi shares.

Despite Lakeside emphasizing ‘risk-taking’ as one of our competencies and mindsets, when it comes to elective choices, students tend to do the opposite.

Andy, however, thinks that “there should be exceptions to the formulaic number for classes to run because it doesn’t give classes the chance to run to begin with.”

Fortunately, Latino/a/x in American Life and Culture will not face the fate as Queer U. S. History or the Black Lives Matter elective. Come the fall of next year, it will run with roughly eight students. 

Part of the reason why could have also been Andy’s directness with the elective’s dismissal. A member of a history department focusing on “levers of change” this year, Andy saw his elective as “an opportunity to demonstrate a lever of change.” “Sometimes you have to be mad. Sometimes you have to say this is not okay because if you don’t do that nothing is going to happen,” he says. 

Another part had to do with the other people involved in the elective’s journey, which included Profe Mara, Profe Jay, Profe Paloma, and Profe Bensadon. But it was Mr. Boccuzzi who stepped in and acted as a “middle man” during the process, as Andy describes. He credits Mr. Boccuzzi as “someone that understood the system at hand and understood the urgency of it. He was someone who said we actually have to do something now. It’s not just something where we can say ‘Oh, we’ll fix it next year.’”

“I’m convinced this is going to be an incredible experience for the students taking it,” Mr. Boccuzzi says. “We decided it was important for us to make adjustments to do what we can to launch the course.”

In a world where public high schools and colleges fight for the access to classes surrounding equity, Andy recognizes that Lakeside has the comparative advantage. As a private institution, Lakeside can host GSL trips, club activities, and offer electives that cover areas of interest not spotlighted in core classes. But it is the student advocacy that public schools rely on to run their courses that gives public schools an advantage as well. Short term solutions around these courses involve running a course its first year even with low enrollment, whereas longer term solutions revolve more around narrowing some of the choices students have; Mr. Boccuzzi explains that this would possibly look like running three sections of an elective instead of four. Regardless, some of the onus is on us as students. “We have an advantage,” Andy recognizes, referring to Lakeside’s ability to provide DEI-centered classes. “But we need to take advantage of that advantage.”

When asked about what advice he would tell the students at Lakeside, Andy offers the same advice that he gave two weeks ago during my history class, where he walked in wearing a hat with the Mexican flag and a shirt that read “Brown and Proud.”

“This is your school,” he tells me. “It is what you make of it.”