CHICAGO — A Chicago Public Schools official stopped short of admitting Saturday that the nation's third-largest school district was not in compliance with a 22-year-old state law mandating black history be taught in all public schools.
But "if it turns out that we are not in compliance then we will fix that," said Adrian Willis, a former elementary school principal and now chief of elementary schools for 31 schools in Englewood and Auburn Gresham on the South Side.
"We first want feedback from the community on how to implement black history classes into our curriculum," Willis told a community gathering hosted by We Can Inc. at Josephine's Cooking restaurant, 435 E. 79th St.
The neighborhood organization called the meeting to address concerns that CPS is not teaching students about black history except occasionally during Black History Month, which begins Friday.
Willis said public schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is interested in working with parents to ensure schools are in compliance with a state law that went into effect in 1991 mandating that black history, including slavery, be taught in every public elementary and high school.
According to CPS data, blacks make up 42 percent of its 404,151 students, and Latinos are the majority, at 44 percent, followed by whites at 9 percent.
In 1986, state Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), sponsored state legislation mandating that black history be taught in public schools. Flowers attended the meeting and lashed out at Willis for remarks he made that she described as insulting.
"For you to stand here and say CPS wants to first get feedback from the community on how to implement black history in your curriculum is an insult, and you should be ashamed of yourself as a black man and former principal for saying it," Flowers said.
"[CPS] didn't wait to get feedback when you asked the state Legislature for an extension for producing a school closure list. CPS didn't wait for feedback to extend the school day this year, which it should have done years ago. So don't give me that crap that you are searching for ways to implement black history before actually teaching it to our kids," said Flowers.
State Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) also attended the meeting and said too many black kids are attending schools named after blacks, and the students don't even realize it.
"Most of the students who attend Paul Robeson High School [on the South Side] don't know anything about him other than he is a black man," said Davis. "And that's a shame."
J.W. Smith, education chairman for We Can Inc., recalled that during his days as the varsity football coach at Percy L. Julian High School on the South Side that many of his players were unaware that Julian was the first black chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.
"They didn't have a clue who he was and what he had done to be honored with a school named after him," recalled Smith. "But they knew who [Hall of Fame quarterback] Terry Bradshaw and [late Bears star] Walter Payton were."
About 40 people attended the meeting, including the Rev. Kenyatta Smith, pastor of Another Chance Church of Chicago.
"This is why our black youth are killing each other. They do not know themselves or their history," Smith said. "There is no excuse why CPS has not aggressively taught black history."
Jonathan Walker, 47, a disabled veteran from Auburn Gresham, said he is more concerned about who will be teaching black history to "our" kids.
"Our history has already been told wrong by too many people, so before we start teaching, we need to make sure that those teaching it know what the hell they are talking about and not repeating misinformation out of textbooks," Walker said. "I graduated from Countee Cullen [elementary school on the South Side], and it was not until I was 29 that I learned that Countee Cullen was a famous black poet. His story was never taught to us at the school."
Willis said he would meet with Byrd-Bennett on Monday to let her know the urgency in getting black history taught at all elementary and high schools "as soon as possible."
Florence Cox, president of We Can Inc., said she wants to see black history being taught not just at schools with majority-black populations, but at all schools.
"It does not take forever to get this done," said Cox, who in 1992 became the first black president of the Chicago Board of Education. "We [blacks] are not stupid people."