The St. Paul Public Schools have racial equity as the centerpiece of its education plan, but some parents and teachers believe they should do more to put people of color front and center in what kids study.
The district has invested millions of dollars in training teachers to acknowledge that when children act out, more often than not it stems from a cultural misunderstanding between the majority of instructors who are white and students who are not. But Jeff Martin, head of the St. Paul NAACP, would like to see a more dedicated effort to expand African American history and literature in classes that are largely Euro-centric.
“I don't think they've gotten into it at the levels where they need to actually buy into it,” he says. “White leaders, white heroes, that's all our kids see within the public school system, except for that one glorious month. One way to tell kids that they count is to tell them that the people they come from count.”
Martin wants to see the same emphasis placed on Native American and immigrant topics. They could be integrated into mainstream classes with about as much effort as it takes to substitute Robert Frost with Langston Hughes, he says. There could also be the option of taking a Harlem Renaissance class instead of routine American Lit.
Class choice, however, has not always been a popular concept.
The district has doubled down on uniformity in recent years, with the idea that assigning students to mainstream classes and pushing them to learn all the same material would level the achievement gap between white kids and students of color. Elective classes were slashed.
Last year, the district gave Central High School a list of classes marked for elimination. Among them was Quest, an honors African American studies program that Central has offered since the late-1970s. Its two sections fill up every year, but because there was no equivalent in other schools, district officials told Central it had to go.
“So we notified parents,” says Quest teacher Rebecca Bauer. “Parents within the African American community were passionate about making sure those classes stayed, and they mobilized around that. They got information out, had meetings and contacted the school board. They were really prepared for a fight, so the district officials at that point let us keep what we had.”
Harding High School was not so lucky. After it lost a slew of electives, teachers asked to have the option of teaching African American studies, Asian literature and their own Quest program. The idea came up at the school board meetings, but the classes were never added.
"If you're gonna talk about racial equity, then it shouldn't just be lip service and training," Bauer says. "It should be integrating culturally relevant curriculum in a very purposeful way. The other classes, the way that they're structured, is kind of like a passing nod to diversity without really making it a focal point of an entire course."
St. Paul schools' social studies courses take the blending approach early on.
Grades K-2 uses children’s books based on world cultures. Third grade covers the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Nubia, China and Mesoamerica. When studying North America geography in grade four, students learn about the Gullah people – West Africans who took root in South Carolina and Georgia. Slavery is introduced in the fifth grade.
In middle and high schools, electives are offered in African American and American Indian history as well as Asian American studies.
"Each year the district offers classes that meet state-mandated requirements, along with electives that help students advance through graduation and beyond," a district spokeswoman says.
But last June, members of the Parents of African American Students Advisory Council met with school board members to say those efforts were not enough. The group requested mandatory inclusion of African American history throughout St. Paul schools, elective programs in other subjects and more teachers of color to impart those lessons.
School board members promised to give it some thought.
A year later, one mom, Bridget Moore, is still looking for more natural tie-ins of the accomplishments of black Americans in mainstream classes, more electives, and an Afrocentric immersion program in the same vein as the district's Hmong programs.
“It will take nothing short of having parents of the African Diaspora at the bargaining table with the teachers union and the school board,” Moore says. “There are entirely too many conversations and decisions being made about us, without us at the table. Not just as a passing courtesy to ask for our feedback, once a plan of action is underway, we need to be present at the inception of the plans.”
Martin points to Chicago's African Studies program as a success. The program, which focuses on history, literature and culture from the African continent as well as in America, is attracting kids who otherwise would have had little interest in going to school, he says.
“I don't understand why things don't work in St. Paul,” Martin says. “We're sending our kids out with low expectations. So the economy sucks, you can't afford to go to college, good luck. Maybe there's another fast food restaurant for you to work at. We're really not preparing our students to succeed.”
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