The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

Class or Pass?


It was 11:36 p.m. and Zoe Kramar ’24 scrolled through her course selections, eagerly checking numerous boxes, including the one next to Latin American Studies. A few weeks later she received an email from her dean explaining that the class had been canceled due to a lack of sign ups. Kramar said she was frustrated since it was a class she had been excited about taking for a long time.

“I was really disappointed,” Kramar said. “It was a class that I was really looking forward to taking, and I know other people that took the class in the past loved it, who are disappointed that it’s discontinued as well.

This past year, Kramar took Middle East Studies, a class that she said helped expand her knowledge of geopolitics. Kramar said she hoped Latin American Studies would have a similar effect.

“I took Middle Eastern studies this year and I do Model UN, and I’ve become very interested in learning more about global politics and culture,” Kramar said. “I thought it would be an eye-opening course and an interesting case study.”

Latin American Studies Teacher Ingrid Sierakowski said her course is important not only for those who identify as Latin American but also for students who want to learn about broader cultures around the world.

“I feel like there’s a lot of students who are not of Latin American descent, but they’re taking Spanish or French and want to explore cultures,” Sierakowski said. “I think that there should be an emphasis for students to learn more about societies and cultures that they’re not used to. With the exception of the U.S. and Canada, the entire Western Hemisphere is Latin America.”

In order to stimulate more interest in the class, Sierakowski said she specifically designed the course to connect with students living in a West Coast environment.

“I taught this at my previous school in New York, and I brought in a bit more of the Latin American culture from the East Coast, so it was a lot more of a Dominican or Puerto Rican emphasis. Because I’m on the West Coast, and I feel like a lot of the students need to feel connected to what’s happening in this environment, [the class] has more of a Central American, Mexican and South American emphasis.”

Sierakowski  said the class was meant to extend beyond the curriculum of a normal history class by taking a close look into the art and culture of the region. 

“There’s a lot of themes that we talk about, not just history, but aesthetics as well,” Sierakowski said. “We think about art, music and dance in a different way, and it’s good to add that sense of regional diversity. I feel like we tend to lump Latin Americans as one thing, but it’s just so many different things.”

Latin American Studies was not the only class afflicted by a lack of enrollment. The courses Black Diasporas: Shaping Modern America, Arts, Democracy and the Holocaust, China Studies: Past, Present, Future and International Relations were all canceled for the upcoming school year. Like Latin American Studies, these classes dealt with the subjects of diversity, race and cultures from around the world. Head of Upper School Beth Slattery said  she thinks there is great value in learning about other cultures.

“DEI work is supposed to exist in all of our classes, but there is something important about seeing yourself reflected in a curriculum fully as opposed to feeling like it’s an add-on,” Slattery said. “If I’m talking about myself as a white person, there’s some value in me actually delving into and trying to learn more about something that is a culture that is different than my own. So yes, I do worry that people could go throughout their time [at the school] and not have to go as deep as we think that they should go in understanding the culture.”

 Slattery said there will be conversations about whether or not the school should implement a requirement for taking some of these classes.

“It’s mission-aligned to say that you should take at least one course during your time at Harvard-Westlake that is taught from a different perspective than your own, or that provides you insight into your own culture,” Slattery said.  

“When we don’t have these classes because [there are] not enough people, do we need to signal our values by actually saying that everybody should be taking a course that meets that criteria? So it’s actually a thing that we’ll be talking about next year.”

History and Black Diasporas teacher Erik C. Wade said although implementing a course requirement is a good idea, he is concerned that there may be backlash.

“I think it makes sense to even the playing field and articulate what [the school] actually values and that these classes could be on par with AP or honors classes,” Wade said. “I also wonder if there’s gonna be backlash from parents or students. I don’t think we have a director of academics. We [could have] a director of academics that would be able to see not just the short view, but the long view of how these classes are going to be impacted [in the future].”

Wade said the fact that his class has yet to gain significant traction among students says more about the current climate of the school than the quality of the class.

“One of the main reasons why I came out here was to teach this course,” Wade said. “I had one student the first time around, and after [Black Leadership and Culture Club] BLACC tried to rally, I had 6, and I  don’t think it says something about me or the quality of the classes. I think it says something about the system and culture of the school of why it’s not valued or worthy of taking.”

Earlier in his teaching career, Wade taught classes at Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the top-ranked private schools in the nation according to Niche. Since coming to teach history at the school last year, Wade says he sees many similarities between the values that students at the two educational institutions seem to prioritize.

“Schools like Harvard-Westlake and Exeter have reputations of being really rigorous,” Wade said. “I think sometimes they shy away from embracing ethnic and racial study courses that are also rigorous and could challenge students who identify with them. I think that if my class were the AP African American studies course, I might have two sections or definitely one. Students have this collection of choices that they have to make, but you don’t want them to miss out on opportunities of being able to see a truly diverse tapestry of experience in the world and within the context of the United States.”

Wade said while the school can incentivize students to take these classes, ultimately the students are responsible for changing the culture of the school.

“The fact is that there’s three ethnic studies courses that are not going to be taught next year,” Wade said. “I was thinking about Harvard-Westlake as a microcosm of the United States [on how] you value inclusivity. Ultimately, institutions are guided by and led by individuals who can make choices to make sure that that’s not the case. I came out here to teach a Black Studies course. And now I don’t have the opportunity to do that, and that’s going to make next year not as enjoyable.”

Elizabeth Johnstone ’24 said she sees some flaws with making Interdisciplinary Studies and Interdisciplinary Research [ISIR] classes a requirement for graduation.

“If you have a big class size, it reduces the quality of discussion and there are a bunch of people in there who don’t want to take it, which ruins it for the people who are genuinely there because they love the course,” Johnstone said. “A potential long-term solution is to market these courses since there is genuine interest outw there to take them. There’s so much apprehension in the new schedule, which adds even more hesitancy to take these types of ISIR courses.”

Johnstone said the school should promote these classes better, especially if they want to adhere to their messaging regarding DEI integration to avoid seeming hypocritical.

“In terms of making exceptions to policies and revising policies, it’s really a matter of what values an institution wants to promote,” Johnstone said. “If Harvard-Westlake genuinely wants to promote DEI in the academic setting, I think this is one of the ways to do it. Find a way to make these classes fun. I understand how that would be a little crazy, but promote these classes so that they can reach those [thresholds]. Put your money where your mouth is.”

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