CHICAGO — After Chicago Public Schools added a more robust black history curriculum three years ago, some educators and officials with local museums said the district still isn't doing enough.
Lynn Hughes, founder of the National A. Phillip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum — a museum that showcases the history of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which is widely recognized as the nation's first black labor union — believes CPS does a poor job of teaching black history to its students.
"For a very long time, I've been trying to interact with Chicago Public Schools. Our kids aren't getting a fair distribution of black history. They don't know their own history," Hughes said. "When kids come to the museum, they are touched by what they didn't know. The young people who had no idea of this history we were never taught about these people."
Chicago Public Schools officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In 1991, a state law was passed requiring all public schools in Illinois to develop and implement a curriculum that includes black history.
According to CPS, 39 percent of its students are black.
After meeting with a South Side community group, then CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced CPS would expand its black history curriculum. In 2013, CPS announced the curriculum would include classes in African and African-American studies outside of just the traditional subjects of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.
“CPS has taken great pride in developing a yearlong, interdisciplinary African and African-American studies program that will enrich the understanding and appreciation of African and African-American history and culture to help build stronger and more cohesive student communities,” Byrd-Bennett said in the news release.
But some of the educators who've been pushing the hardest to promote black history in Chicago said CPS deserves failing marks for what what's been done so far with the curriculum.
Juanita Douglas, a teacher of African-American History at Lincoln Park High School, contributed to the CPS-mandated black history curriculum. But she said teaching the history falls by the wayside when CPS emphasizes preparation for the bevy of standardized tests given to students throughout the year.
"As a standalone course, African-American [history] has diminished. The curriculum CPS mandated is online for teachers, too, but I don't know anyone who uses it. It's not monitored," Douglas said. "African-American history in public schools is taught in pieces. I'd like to teach certain things, but standardized testing often gets in the way since we only have 40 weeks in the school year."
Douglas, who is a member of the Chicago Teachers Union's Black Caucus, said the CPS curriculum isn't keeping up with the times.
"We need to address the issues that match up with the population of the students. We don't teach history in the way our students will need in the years to come," Douglas said. "In terms of Black Lives Matter, I have students who are in the Police Explorers program and they need to learn the history of police brutality."
Troy LaRaviere, the president the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, said he wanted to expand the history curriculum when he first took over as principal at his former school, Blaine Elementary School in Lakeview.
LaRaviere, a former history teacher, said the overall history curriculum is "absolutely not" adequate.
"The curriculum doesn't acknowledge the construct of race. We never talk about how the rich elite have turned poor, working class people against each other," LaRaviere said.
LaRaviere used the example of how the 1955 Montgomery (Ala.) Bus Boycott is usually taught in schools to illustrate his point.
"The context of keeping working people divided is never discussed. It will show that black people integrated the buses through the bus boycott," LaRaviere said. "It's presented as a struggle for integration. What they don't present it as is how white people suffered. It's presented as black vs. white. Not how those in power manipulated black and white."
Still, LaRaviere, a fierce critic of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS, says things are better than before.
"Compared to what we used to have, it's decent," he said.
Offering such classes is important for a variety of reasons.
A study done earlier this year by Stanford University called "The Causal Effects of Cultural Relevance: Evidence from an Ethnic Studies," appears to back up the claims of Douglas and Hughes.
The study's researchers found that when ethnic-based classes are taught in schools, students not only made gains in attendance and grades, they also increased the number of course credits they earned to graduate.
“Schools have tried a number of approaches to support struggling students, and few have been this effective," study co-author Emily Penner said in a written statement about the study. "It’s a novel approach that suggests that making school relevant and engaging to struggling students can really pay off.”
Eve Ewing, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, said teaching children a more complete history can improve their well-being.
"In the 21st century, it's time to stop relegating things like slavery, like Japanese internment, like the genocide of indigenous peoples, to the footnotes, and to instead acknowledge these stories as cornerstones of the country we live in. That battle begins in schools," Ewing said.
"Teaching students about a version of our national history and culture that includes black people and blackness, and people of color more broadly, at the center rather than at the margins is not only potentially good for their social and emotional development, it's also simply accurate."
The Pullman Museum's Hughes said there's a direct correlation between black children not knowing their history and low self-esteem.
"During Black History Month, schools show a limited amount of our history. It's a disservice to our history," Hughes said. "I want to get this history into the hands and minds of our children. Knowing who we are and where we came from, shows that you are worthy of something."
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