This is a story that I've been following. Isn't this long overdue? My first acquaintance to minority scholarship was African American and Jewish American literature. It was eye-opening and thusly, transformative. Then Mexican American history came along a little later and it made a huge difference in my life to finally learn about my history. Would have been nice to have learned about it sooner than in graduate school. It's also such a rich and powerful history. -Angela
June 25, 2005
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY
PHILADELPHIA, June 22 - Angry that public schools here have always taught American history through a Eurocentric prism, parents of black children began pleading with local school officials to offer a course in African-American history.
That was nearly 40 years ago.
This year, their pleas were finally - and emphatically - answered. Starting in September, students entering city high schools as ninth graders will be required to take a course in African-American history, making Philadelphia the first major city to require such a course for high school graduation.
School officials here say the course carries huge benefits for all students and offers a perspective on American history that has been largely absent from most contemporary teaching guides.
"You cannot understand American history without understanding the African-American experience; I don't care what anybody says," said Paul G. Vallas, the school system's chief executive, who is white. "It benefits African-American children who need a more comprehensive understanding of their own culture, and it also benefits non-African-Americans to understand the full totality of the American experience."
Critics of the policy shift say it will further polarize the city by focusing attention on just one race and not dealing with other racial and ethnic groups like Mexicans, Chinese or Poles.
According to a course outline developed by district officials, the course will focus on how Africans became Americans through the colonial period, efforts of slaves to achieve freedom, the Civil War and its aftermath, economic development for blacks through the last century, the civil rights movement and the growth of modern black nationalist movements in the United States and Africa.
Supporters say the course will place a new emphasis on historical African-American figures like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells and Dr. Charles Drew, whose contributions to American life and culture seldom get more than a brief mention, if that, in the current textbooks that many schools use.
The Philadelphia School District includes 185,000 students, two-thirds of whom are African-American, and only two in seven are white or Hispanic. The School Reform Commission, a panel that sets policy and is now composed of three whites and two blacks, voted 5 to 0 in February to make the course mandatory in all 53 high schools after some in recent years had offered African-American history as an elective.
The vote garnered little notice at the time, but in recent weeks as the school board began mailing out letters to parents informing them of next year's curriculum, pockets of local resistance began emerging.
The speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, John M. Perzel, an otherwise strong supporter of the city's schools for recent improvements in test scores, asked the commission to reconsider making the course mandatory.
Mr. Perzel, a Republican who represents a district in northeast Philadelphia that is largely white, said in a letter to the commission chairman, James E. Nevels, that he was concerned that the mandate "will divide, rather than unite" the city "and thereby erode the positive learning environment."
Mr. Nevels, calling himself "respectful of the points" Mr. Perzel raised, said he was certain that district officials would not reverse their decision. "There's no question about the commitment to African-American history by the Philadelphia School District," he said.
An aide to Mr. Perzel said the letter was prompted, in part, by complaints from constituents. Mr. Perzel declined a request for an interview, but his sentiments appear to reflect discomfort among some whites elsewhere in the city.
Standing outside a recreation center in Fishtown, a largely white working-class neighborhood, Mike Budnick, 16, called the requirement "a bad idea" and said he was not especially interested in learning about black culture or heritage.
"I'm more interested in our history," he said.
A friend of Mr. Budnick, Arbi Ferko, also 16, said, "It's not our history to learn," and pointed out, as other critics have, that the school had not sought to create courses on the history of other groups.
Supporters of the course are dismayed by such views, insisting that in large measure, African-Americans, like no other ethnic group, have been cheated by contemporary textbooks and social studies curriculums that introduce students to blacks in this country as slaves from Africa with no prior language, culture or heritage.
"Too often, African-Americans are marginalized in American society," said Sandra Dungee Glenn, a commission member who was the driving force behind making the course mandatory. "People's views and understanding of who we are focus on us as descendents of slaves. It begins and ends there, giving us inferior status."
The course is designed to alter those perceptions by reviewing the origins of civilization in Africa and early developments in African history before tracking the movement of Africans to North America as slaves.
From that point, the course follows the progress and travails of blacks throughout American history with a special emphasis on their contributions.
As a pilot program, African history was offered in the spring semester this year in four high schools.
Patricia Thomas Whyatt taught the course at Strawberry Mansion, a nearly all-black school of 900 students, and found that even her own students had misconceptions of their race.
"The first day I asked students to make a list of everything they knew about Africa, then we went through each item," Ms. Whyatt said. "They thought Africa was all jungle, that people ran around with spears and lived in huts. A lot of crazy things like that."
By the end of school this month, she said, not only had perceptions changed but self-esteem had improved as well.
One of her students, Christopher Davis, 18, said: "In American society, we're known as gangsters, drug dealers and killers. People don't know all about our heritage, what we stood for, our accomplishments as a culture. I feel better now because I know a little bit more about how we lived before we got here."