DOWNTOWN — Jonelle Gonzalez planned on taking a Latin American literature course during her senior year at Jones College Preparatory High School, allowing her to complete her English requirements before heading off to college to major in Latin American Studies.
"I am passionate about my culture, and taking Latin [American] literature would help prepare me for college, since I plan on majoring in Latin American Studies," the 17-year-old Gonzalez said.
But an unexpected curriculum change that has outraged black and Latino students at Jones College Prep meant that Latin American and African-American literature courses no longer count as part of the core English curriculum. Instead, they’re now electives.
The new course designation angered ShaDe' Phoenix so much that she started an online petition drive on Jan. 22 to protest the change. As of Monday morning, there were more than 725 signatures posted online.
"I had planned on taking Latin Lit next year but now I can't, and that upsets me," said the 17-year old junior. "Once I found out about the change, I started talking to other students and teachers, and they suggested starting a petition to present to the school board."
Jones College Prep Principal P. Joseph Powers said he applauds the students for standing up for what they believe in, but noted he was recently told by officials at Chicago Public Schools that the two courses did not meet the requirements of an English course.
"Students currently enrolled in these classes will receive credit for it," Powers said. "I fully support the two classes and hope students continue signing up to take them. I think both classes enhance our curriculum."
But Latin American literature classes were not even offered this year at Jones because of low enrollment, said Ernesto Saldivar Jr., who teaches Latin American literature as well as World and American literature.
African-American literature teacher William McHenry said he is concerned that fewer students might sign up for his class if it is an elective.
“Making this course an elective minimizes its importance,” said McHenry, who also teaches journalism and is the school's yearbook advisor. “African-American literature should be kept as a core English course because it is a class needed for our students.”
African-American Literature was previously offered as an elective, but in 2008 it was made a core English course, McHenry said.
CPS is currently devising a plan that would better incorporate African-American courses as part of its curriculum, said Marielle Sainvilus, a spokeswoman for CPS.
“African-American history is a vital component of the culture and fabric of both our country and our city," she said. "Integrating these very important teachings into our classrooms is a priority for [CPS] Chief Executive Officer [Barbara] Byrd-Bennett. She is working on a plan to address this with our Office of Teaching & Learning."
Last month, community members pressed CPS officials about a perceived lack of black history being taught in schools. A state law passed in 1986 and enacted in 1991 requires that black history be taught in all public elementary and high schools.
At a recent community meeting on the South Side, Adrian Willis, chief of Elementary Schools for CPS, stopped short of acknowledging that CPS was not following guidelines in teaching black history at all its elementary and high schools.
“If it turns out that we are not in compliance, then we will fix that,” Willis said. “[But] we first want feedback from the community on how to implement black history classes into our curriculum.”
CPS officials said that by June, teachers would receive sample units that could be used and adapted in each grade level, including units specifically focused on black history and the contributions of blacks.
Powers, the Jones College Prep principal, said that there are currently no classes offered to freshmen or sophomores at Jones College Prep that would teach them about the history of blacks or Latinos. Only juniors and seniors are eligible to take African-American and Latin American literature courses.
One Jones College Prep alumnus, who is now a freshman at Northwestern University, said taking Latin American literature prepared her for college.
"I am a Latin American Studies major," said Cinthya Rodriguez, 18, who graduated from Jones College Prep in 2012, "I see other Latinos struggling because they did not take any Latin lit classes in high school."
Latin American literature not only taught Jones College Prep senior Diana Lopez more about her heritage, but also improved her Spanish.
"This class taught me a lot about my history as a Latino, and I can truly say I am not the same person I was four years ago," said the 17-year-old. "Taking Latin American Literature changed the way I think for the better."