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SPS to debut African American studies class

Suffolk Public Schools will debut an African American studies course this year, one of 16 school divisions across the state that will do so.

For now, the course will be an elective for juniors and seniors, but if the recommendations by the Virginia Commission on African American History in the Commonwealth are heeded, the course will be a graduation requirement for all Virginia public school students and will be incorporated into all history courses, at all levels.

In Suffolk, the course will be offered at Lakeland and King’s Fork high schools for this year, with the plan to offer it at all three of the division’s high schools next year.

“I think it’s one of those things where we get to look at history from a different perspective,” said Katrina Cary, SPS supervisor of history/social studies. “And when we think about the time where we are with our country and in where things are going in terms of really trying to highlight diversity and looking at history through multiple lenses, I think the course for Suffolk Public Schools, and in the state of Virginia, actually is quite timely because it puts us in a situation where, you know what, we get to learn history from a different lens, not just the one that we’ve been used to for decades.”

Gov. Ralph Northam said Aug. 31 that for many years, what has been taught in history classes has not been good enough, and it has not been accurate.

“Black history is American history, but for too long, the story we have told was insufficient and inadequate,” Northam said. “The introduction of this groundbreaking course is a first step toward our shared goal of ensuring all Virginia students have a fuller, more accurate understanding of our history, and can draw important connections from those past events to our present day.”

The full-credit class includes African American history from precolonial Africa through today while introducing key concepts from the early beginnings in Africa through the transatlantic slave trade, the Civil War, the Emancipation, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights era and to the present. It will also spotlight African American voices and their contributions to the state and to the United States.

This year’s course is part of a pilot program, with the goal of having the course roll out at all high schools in the state for the following school year. Cary said the course did not have enough students at Nansemond River High School for this year, so for now, it will be offered at the division’s other two high schools, with Carlotta Boone teaching it at King’s Fork, and Lawren Lee teaching it at Lakeland.

Cary said the division has a marketing plan in place to get the word out about the course to have it at all three high schools next year.

Boone and Lee will serve on a Virginia Department of Education team of teachers who will help develop the course over the course of the school year, going through specialized training with VDOE, WHRO and renowned African American historians from across the state. They will help develop training and teaching resources to ensure that when the course is available for all school divisions, that everything will be in place and vetted for the course.

Qarni said students can understand the enduring impacts of systematic racism only when they fully understand how African Americans were oppressed, as well as their contributions to all aspects of life.

“As a history teacher, I know that this course is long overdue,” Qarni said, “and is a first step toward telling a more inclusive story about the past and how it has shaped the present.”

Besides Suffolk, Norfolk and Portsmouth, other school divisions offering the class include Alleghany County, Amherst County, Arlington County, Carroll County, Charlottesville, Chesterfield County, Covington, Franklin County, Henrico County, Henry County, Loudoun County, Prince William County and Winchester.

About a year in the making, the report released Aug. 31 calls for changes in curriculum, teacher training and graduation requirements.

Among the recommended changes:

  • Making recommendations and technical edits for enriched standards related to African American history
  • Identifying how the standards can be organized and improved to ensure that African American history is a cohesive part of the teaching of all history
  • Revising of the full history and social studies standards review process to be more inclusive of diverse perspectives
  • Recommending professional development and instructional supports to equip all educators to create and sustain culturally responsive pedagogy and gain appropriate foundational knowledge of African American history.

Cary noted that Zaretta Hammond, a former teacher and author of the book, “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” was the division-wide pre-service speaker Aug. 28.

“The recommendations made by the commission will result in curriculum and professional development changes that allow Virginia students to thoroughly examine and directly combat systematic racism in the Commonwealth’s history,” said state Secretary of Education Atif Qarni in a statement. “Students will develop greater empathy for their neighbors, and a deeper understanding of their ancestors. They will come to realize how they can be a part of the solution and help create a better Virginia moving forward.”

Last August, Northam established the commission by executive order on the same day he spoke at an event to commemorate the first slaves arriving at Fort Monroe more than 400 years ago. It was also about six months after a photo of someone in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume was found on Northam’s personal page in his medical school yearbook. At first, Northam said he appeared in the photo before later denying it.

In its recommendations, the commission noted that the timing of the report stresses “the urgent and critical need” in the country to better understand Black history and ways in which the country’s racial history continues to influence what is happening today.

“The Commission wrote this final report in the midst of a global pandemic that disproportionally impacts communities of color,” the report states. “They worked against the backdrop of protests and outrage at the murder of George Floyd and too many other Black Americans in the name of law and order.”

Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and history professor at Norfolk State University and one of the chairs of the commission, said previous standards did not measure up.

“The standards were tainted with a master narrative that marginalized, or erased, the presence of non-Europeans from the American landscape,” Newby-Alexander said. “These historical silences skew our perspective of the past. It erases people of color and it supplants our nation with a false narrative that ignores the cultural underpinnings in American society.”

Cary looks forward to the African American studies course being the first of multiple history classes that will explore the subject from different lenses.

As the history and social science standards of learning begin the revision process in 2021, Cary said the commission recommended that the new standards include an African American perspective in them.

“Hopefully, this is the first one of many different courses that we’ll add over time,” Cary said. “So the goal is to eventually add other types of electives as well, so not just the African American history course, but who’s to say we might not have one that focuses on Native American history or women’s studies, or what have you. So it’s really about inclusivity and diversity within understanding history.”