District 209 Grapples With State Law That Requires Teaching Of Black History

Friday, August 16, 2019 || By Tom Holmes/Forest Park Review || @maywoodnews

Featured image: A page out of The Black Book. | Google Books

Proviso Township High School District 209 officials are grappling with the implications of a state law that requires African American History to be taught in public elementary and high schools. 

Last year, the Illinois legislature voted HB 4346 into law. Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (4th) was among the bill’s senate sponsors.

The law requires that “the events of Black History be taught in every public elementary school and high school, provides that a student may not complete the 8th grade or graduate from high school without studying this material and that a school may meet this requirement through an online program or course,” according to an online summary of the law.

Although all of the stakeholders interviewed for this article agree that students should understand and study African American history, there is some disagreement about what the new law actually says, how to implement it at District 209 and how quickly those changes should be made. 

Dr. Nicole Howard, D209’s assistant superintendent for Academics, Student and Family Services, said that the experience of Blacks in the United States is unique and that the new law acknowledges that “vestiges of slavery” still exist in this country.

District 209 board member Rodney Alexander, a resident of Proviso Township since 1994 and a senior parole agent with the Illinois Department of Corrections for the last 18 years, has been among the most vocal proponents of the law. He said that the source of his passion for what is taught in D209 schools is both personal and professional.

He said his work with young, Black men has regularly exposed him to the “vestiges” of slavery in America. Alexander ticked off some of those vestiges — from violence, unemployment and poor health conditions to the prison population boom and self-hatred. The board member said that all of this can be attributed to the scourge of systemic racism.  

Alexander said that he believes that the state law effectively mandates that schools require African American history to be taught in a standalone course — separate from other kinds of history. 

Bishop Reginald Saffo, the chairman of Proviso Township Ministerial Alliance Network, agrees with Alexander. 

“We are asking the schools to comply with the current law,” Saffo said. “The bill requires that school districts offer a structured curriculum course of study on African American history. The goal is to have the program in place by the fall. When I approached the district about this issue, they were very open to investigating the matter, which led them to conclude they were not in compliance.”

Howard, however, said that the exact word used in the text of the bill is “unit,” which is not a separate course; that Proviso East already has an elective course on Black history available to students; and that the teaching of the African American experience already takes place in units taught in American History, civics and literature. She added that there are also events and initiatives related to African American and Latinx history that supplement what’s offered in the classroom. 

Board member Claudia Medina said that the law only mandates a required course on African American History at public universities. 

Still, Howard said, D209 is engaged in a major equity study that she believes will surface more ideas on how to enhance the teaching of Black history in the three high schools in the district. She said that it takes about a year for the school board, administration and faculty to go from the introduction of an idea to implementing it in the curriculum.

Right now, the idea of creating a separate black history course has only been introduced in the Student Achievement and School Innovation committee chaired by Medina. District 209 board President Ned Wagner said that it was impossible for him to predict when a decision would be made regarding the issue. 

“At our most recent board meeting, [Supt. Jesse Rodriguez] presented the idea that D209 could adapt it’s curricula to incorporate materials and techniques not just to teach our students about these issues, but to emphasize the positive cultural attributes of our students so they can succeed in life because they are African American; because they are immigrants,” Wagner said.

“Education is the great equalizer and the key to liberation,” said Alexander. “Everyone has to be taught the same set of facts. When people know better, they do better.” VFP

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