Change is about more than teaching diversity in schools.
Tammi Florio isn’t interested in diversity. That’s an old educational milestone at West Chester Area School District, where Florio is director of teaching and learning. The diversity goal was achieved back in 2002, when Florio began her career at the district as a reading specialist. By 2004, the focus had widened to include equity. And while the words seem similar, they’re not synonymous. “Diversity was about broader topics like culture, languages, food and dress, but it didn’t dig into the issues of systemic and institutionalized racism,” says Florio. “Equity is about seeing those unconscious biases—not ignoring color and gender but having conversations around them.”
That equity factor seems to be in line with renewed calls for anti-racist curricula throughout the region. The movement gained momentum this past June during various informative, often uncomfortable conversations spurred by Black Lives Matters protests. Following the murder of George Floyd, a cross-section of Americans came face-to-face with their ignorance about the inherent racism that constricts the lives of people of color. “It’s hard to understand antiracism without first understanding what it means to be racist,” writes Ibram X. Kendi, author of the bestselling book How to Be an Antiracist and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C.
Antiracist discussions are part of Chris Reyna’s 10th grade social studies classes at West Chester’s Bayard Rustin High School. Using the social construct of race as a lens through which to view history, Reyna discusses the pseudo-scientific eugenic theories of the early 20th-century that laid the groundwork for colonialism, imperialism and slavery. “We look deeply at the real basis of racism as a need for political and economic control,” he says. “We have uncomfortable conversations about how people accepted that as truth.”
Moving beyond the enslavement of Black Americans in the United States, Reyna looks at the institution in countries like Spain and Brazil. He does the same with other concepts, addressing the good, the bad and the ugly from ancient Greece up to now. “It’s important to see things on a continuum,” he says.
Inclusion is a critical curricula component in Lower Merion School District, where the shift away from diversity happened in the early 2000s. “Even then, we thought about representation and whose stories were told, the context in which they were told and what ways we should, can and do have the right and responsibility to tell those stories,” says Leslie Pratt, the district’s humanities supervisor for grades 6-12.
Classes like “Western Civilization” and “African-Asian Cultures”—which looked at history from a Euro-centric perspective—were replaced by two global studies courses that take a more panoramic view of world history, says Pratt. To provide historical texture and depth, the classes include narratives written by women and people of color. “When we’re building curricula, we think about representation across a variety of races, gender, and all questions of identity,” Pratt says.
Some say the evolution of anti-racist curricula in schools isn’t moving fast enough—or going far enough. This past summer’s protests included widespread accusations of racist micro-aggression from teachers and students alike.
In June, Conestoga High School students and recent graduates formed Main Line for Black Lives, organizing a march from Wayne to Paoli. “This was another moment, another chance, for the community to act,” says Conestoga senior Jeremiah Miller. “We’ve dealt with racial injustice at Conestoga. But when we decided to do the rally outside of school, it felt like we were speaking to everything.”
Soon after, recent Lower Merion graduate Nya Jarbah joined with classmates to organize a rally and march that drew nearly 1,500 people to Ardmore’s Vernon V. Young Memorial Park. “We wanted to uplift the voices of students of color,” says Jarbah, who adds that the educational needs of students of color are often suppressed, misunderstood or simply ignored.
Pratt is familiar with such frustrations from students. “Questions of representation were crucial five years ago and will be five years from now,” she says. “Building curricula is ongoing, incredibly important work. It’s never done.”
Pratt cites the foreword momentum in antiracist curricula at Lower Merion. In seventh and eighth grade, students will look at the Civil War and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, which granted civil rights to all Americans, touched off the Reconstruction and ushered in the violent Jim Crow era. “And we certainly will be talking to students about history in the context of current events,” says Pratt.
English courses at Lower Merion High School feature “a purposeful arrangement of diverse texts written by ethnically and culturally diverse authors,” says Pratt. The reading list includes Like Water for Chocolate, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and other conversation starters. New this fall: “Voices in African American Literature,” a course three years in the making that will be one of nine English electives for 11th and 12th graders. It started as a class on the literature of the Harlem Renaissance before broadening its scope based on input from a student poll. The class combines classics like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God with such recent works as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.
In West Chester, high schools already have African-American literature classes as electives. Michele Curay-Cramer features authors of color in her eighth-grade English class at E.N. Peirce Middle School. On the reading list are books by Jason Reynolds, Kwame Alexander, Nick Stone and Elizabeth Acevedo, and students watch videos of authors reciting their work aloud. “There’s a rhythm and sound to their writing,” says Curay-Cramer, current president of the West Chester Area Education Association. “Students can hear how authors intended their work to be heard.”
While Curay-Cramer and her colleagues emphasize the social justice aspects of the novels, they are age appropriate. “So there is usually a romance going on, because that’s part of middle school life,” says Curay-Cramer. “But equity is embedded in everything we do.”
The district is also considering the high school course “Race and Ethnicity in America.” And though its curriculum is currently being written with input from teachers, parents and school board members, Florio recognizes that other opinions are important, too. “We’re trained to look for voices that are missing, and students need to be involved,” she says. “We’ll start including them. I look forward to hearing what they say.”