Local schools launch state’s landmark diversity curriculum



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It was a Monday morning in Nicole Foster’s ninth grade English class at Platt High School. Foster’s students were dissecting the poem they had just heard. They were discussing the poet’s use of imagery and metaphor, and the thoughts and feelings each prompted.

Students were analyzing “The Hill We Climb,” written by Amanda Gorman, the youth poet laureate who had recited it during President Joe Biden’s inauguration less than a week before.

Foster and colleagues at Platt recognized the poem’s potential to engage diverse groups of students in lively discussions. It was one of many efforts by teachers like Foster to incorporate diversity, introducing students to writers like Gorman, a 22-year-old Black woman, in their classroom instruction. 

“For many years, I have been fighting for this,” Foster said, explaining she had long sought to steer away from literature with racial undertones, like Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.” . 

In 2019, state lawmakers also acknowledged a need to teach a more diverse and inclusive history when they passed Public Act No. 19-12 — paving the way to include Black and Latino studies as a year-long high school elective course. 

The law tasked the State Education Resource Center and State Department of Education to collaborate on developing the new curriculum.  After 18 months, the State Board of Education unanimously approved the curriculum in December.

Shortly after the board’s vote, Gov. Ned Lamont hailed the new curriculum’s approval, saying it was the first of its kind in the nation, because it integrated Black, Latino and Puerto Rican histories into one course. 

“Increasing the diversity of what we teach is critical to providing students with a better understanding of who we are as a society and where we are going,” Lamont said in a statement. “Adding this course in our high schools will be an enormous benefit not only to our Black and Latino students, but to students of all backgrounds because everyone can benefit from these studies. This is a step that is long overdue, and I applaud the work of the General Assembly, State Board of Education, and everyone at the State Education Resource Center whose collaborative work helped get this done.”

High schools across the state may offer the elective course as soon as next fall, and will be required to do so by the start of the 2022-23 school year. 

A deeper understanding

By that time, Adriana Aponte, a Platt High School senior, will have graduated from high school. 

Rohjennae Harrison and Jaliz Cordero, both juniors, will have graduated as well. All three said there is a desire among their peers for a deeper understanding of their histories. 

Aponte, 17, said she feels the course that will eventually be offered should help bridge current racial equity gaps. 

“I feel like it’s important for all children, no matter their color or background, to take this kind of course, so that they understand better why certain things happen,” Aponte said. 

Harrison, a 16-year-old junior, said students want “to really know and understand their history.” She added that history, as it is currently taught in school, omits important details. 

For Cordero, the omissions are akin to sugarcoating. “It would be nice to hear the actual truth,” she said. 

First of its kind

The new curriculum took about 18 months to develop, with an advisory group of 150 members, including college professors, scholars, parents, high school educators and other community members participating. The group was split into nine smaller committees. 

Because it is the first integrated course of its kind,  State Education Resource Center leaders relied on a wide group of stakeholders to develop it. 

Nitza Diaz, a SERC consultant, explained development started with focus groups, which involved students, teachers and other stakeholders. 

“People wanted to understand history that was empowering to them. It’s empowering not only knowing where I come from, but who I am racially, ethnically … our students knew what they wanted,” Diaz said. 

Using feedback from focus groups and a 150-member advisory group, SERC and collaborators developed the course, which is intended to be inquiry-based and use primary sources. 

Paquita Jarman-Smith, another SERC consultant, said feedback during focus groups helped define the course. They asked, “What does history look like in my life today?”

State Rep. Hilda Santiago, D-Meriden, was among the co-sponsors of that legislation. She also sat on one of the SERC advisory committees during the curriculum’s development.

Santiago, who had attended Platt in the early 1970s, remembered the school had previously offered a Puerto Rican studies class. Santiago took that class as a senior. 

“It wasn’t until then that I really learned about my Puerto Rican culture,” Santiago said. The class, she said, was phased out decades ago. 

“As diverse as Meriden is, it would be good to learn about each other’s cultures,” Santiago said. “The more you learn and know about each other, the less confrontational you are.”

For Santiago, a telling sign that such a course is needed lies in the fact that a large percentage of Americans still don’t realize that Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens of the United States.

For example, the annexation of Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory may get a brief mention in traditional textbook chapters about the Spanish-American War, Santiago explained. The mention may explain how U.S. troops invaded Puerto Rico in 1898. In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted full U.S. citizenship. 

But, Santiago said, Puerto Rico has a much longer history. Like the U.S. as a whole, that history includes slavery and colonization. And like the U.S., that history includes proud cultural touchstones and difficult truths. 

Ensuring it gets taught is “a way of validating that we all have a history,” Santiago said, expressing a hope that as classes are taught, students would share their newfound knowledge with older generations in their own families.

Ruth Terry Walden teaches English language arts at Westhill High School in Stamford. Walden was among the large group of teachers statewide who worked with SERC to develop the new curriculum. 

Walden called for a reimagining of how history is taught in schools. For example, shifting focus toward people, rather than events. 

“We need to have African American history and Latinx history reimagined and redesigned,” Walden said. “It’s just not taught at all. The only thing we teach in Stamford is slavery up to the Civil War, which means the children walk away only knowing that African American people have been slaves.”

Regardless of students’ own cultural and ethnic backgrounds, they would benefit from learning about the historic and cultural contributions of Black and Latino citizens and contributions of other cultures abroad, Walden, Santiago and others said.

Cheshire and Southington high school will both offer the class this fall. It will be taught using Connecticut’s Social Studies framework. 

State Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona, who is U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee as U.S. Secretary of Education, praised the new curriculum’s approval, saying the law had passed largely because of student advocacy. 

“Identities matter, especially when 27 percent of our students identify as Hispanic or Latino and 13 percent identify as Black or African-American,” Cardona said in a December statement. “This curriculum acknowledges that by connecting the story of people of color in the U.S. to the larger story of American history. The fact is that more inclusive, culturally relevant content in classrooms leads to greater student engagement and better outcomes for all.”

Applicable to the present day

Meriden resident Gwen Samuel founded the Connecticut Parent Union, and serves as the group’s president. She was also one of the 150 members in the advisory group that advised SERC on the curriculum’s development. While some members of the group brought academic and scholarly voices to those discussions, Samuel explained that her approach was to be straightforward and practical. 

“To me it was very simple, because I work with families: How can they take this history and apply it to real life?” Samuel said, adding that teaching a history that includes centuries of enslavement, then progresses through the Civil Rights movement, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and school integration, requires a great deal of reflection. 

“How can you take that history and apply it to real life so school climates aren’t as racially tense?” Samuel asked. 

“I felt we didn’t really address how we could use the curriculum to heal us, so that our schools become safer and our communities become safer,” Samuel said. ”That’s what I was still hoping from the curriculum, not just teaching it for the sake of teaching it. And that banner, we’re the first. I’ve seen a lot of firsts. It has to be more than that sound bite, that we made history with this curriculum.”

Scot Esdaile, president of the statewide branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was among the dozens who testified before lawmakers in 2019 prior to the law’s passage. Esdaile spoke of a 400-year history “full of tragedies” that shaped the Black experience in the United States.

“However, that is not the whole story of African American history. African Americans have contributed to the economic, academic, social, cultural and moral well-being of this nation,” Esdaile told lawmakers at the time. 

Esdaile asked, “Would American moral leadership be as strong without Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X or Thurgood Marshall? Would American literature be as prolific without the giants of the Harlem Renaissance? Would American music have conquered the world without pioneers like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé and Prince?”

As districts statewide move toward introducing the course to students, some questions remain.  Kim Fisher, president of the Meriden-Wallingford branch of the NAACP, said one of her main concerns is what will be taught in the classes. “And who’s going to be teaching them? What knowledge do they have of their history that they’re going to be teaching those kids?”

The roll-out of the curriculum is merely a small step in a larger undertaking around diversity. For example, in the Meriden Public Schools, close to three out of every four students identify as non-white, whether Latino, Black, Asian or multiple races. 

Meanwhile, the city’s educator workforce is still predominantly white. More than 90% of educators identify as such. Around 6% of teachers identify as Latino. Just over 2% identify as Black. 

Fisher expressed concern that the curriculum as it will be introduced doesn’t go far enough. She would like to see a version of it introduced to middle school students.

Fisher’s own children had already graduated from the school system. “... And I wish they did teach them more about Black history, not just the one month in February, but throughout the school year,” she said. 

While Black and Latino studies isn’t currently taught in the public schools, organizations like the NAACP and the Spanish Community of Wallingford have filled in some of those gaps with their own after-school programs. 

Fisher said the NAACP’s youth organization has delved deeply into Black history in the past. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has not been able to offer that program as extensively in the past year. 

“The kids were so attentive to that,” Fisher said, adding that learning about history that seemed relevant to them “really grabbed their attention. They really wanted to learn more about themselves.”

Look for a special section later this month celebrating Black History Month. Read stories about the people, past and present, who contribute to our community life, and learn about local Black history and how it influences us today.

The course is intended to be offered to all students, regardless of their backgrounds. Fisher said that is important too. Majority white students “should know our history as well,” she said. “They should know our struggles and accomplishments that we came from.”

Understanding the contributions of all people would help students have a better understanding of history.

Fisher quoted Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, who stated, “Education is the most powerful weapon which we can use to change our world.”

“And he’s right. We’ve got to educate our kids on everything. We can’t just pick and choose what we educate our kids on,” Fisher said. 

In Cheshire, Assistant School Superintendent Marlene Silano said educators in her district are excited to be among those who will be implementing the new curriculum.

“We feel this is the right time,” Silano said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Maria Campos-Harlow, of Wallingford, described the opportunity for students to take such a course as “a gift” that would allow them to gain a better understanding of their neighbors and fellow community members. 

“In a time like this, in an environment like this, it’s important to break the barriers, and walk away from the fear of others,” Campos-Harlow said. “Only good can come out when you can educate yourself about others who don’t look like you or who have the same background as you.”

Campos-Harlow referenced her own upbringing in Bogota, Colombia. She said there was little integration in the society where she grew up. Racism was overt, as was segregation based on one’s social and economic standing. 

“Racism isn’t something exclusive to this country,” Campos-Harlow said. Nor is the tendency for individuals to hold preconceived notions about the cultures of others, regardless of their own backgrounds. All stand to benefit from an education that casts a wide net over different cultures.  

Campos-Harlow explained that it would be just as valuable for students to learn how to interact with others from various cultural backgrounds as it would to learn financial literacy and other skills. 

“It’s part of our lives. We should teach it,” she said. 

At Platt, teachers like Foster and Amy Hayes say they’ve been asking for a curriculum that reflects their students’ diversity. 

“Students’ eyes open wide when they see themselves reflected in the literature they’re reading, and it’s not just the same thing over and over again,” Hayes said. 

In Hayes’ class, students are finishing up “Of Mice And Men,” by John Steinbeck. They will follow that by diving into works by the late Black writer and activist Maya Angelou. 

mgagne@record-journal.com

203-317-2231

Twitter:@MikeGagneRJ



"I feel like it’s important for all children, no matter their color or background, to take this kind of course, so that they understand better why certain things happen."

-Adriana Aponte, 17
"As diverse as Meriden is, it would be good to learn about each other’s cultures. The more you learn and know about each other, the less confrontational you are."

-State Rep. Hilda Santiago
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