In Wake of Black Lives Matter, Advocates Press for Curriculum Changes in Connecticut Schools

As a mother, it’s what’s missing from the curriculum, far more than what is taught, that bothers Rashanda McCollum.

“The story of Black Americans is not just oppression, there’s so much more that’s important,” said McCollum, the executive director of Students for Education Justice. “I’m frustrated as a parent because that’s what my daughter was taught.” 

When her daughter was in elementary school she was assigned a project to research an influential person in Connecticut’s history. The entire class was told to choose from a list of 30 historical figures. According to McCollum, of those 30, just one was not white and male. 

“That particular year I was so frustrated I went to the Hamden Public Library myself and picked up biographies … I showed up with a stack of 20 books and said, ‘if you need resources, here they are,’” McCollum said. “When you leave things out you are affirming certain things. That’s why this is so important. Omission tells its own story.” 

And that omission is what Students for Education Justice — along with many others who have joined the effort in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer — are trying to fix. 

Instead of just a Black and Latino Studies elective offering — which the Legislature has mandated all districts include by 2021 — advocates have helped several school districts form equity and diversity committees this fall with the goal of reviewing current curriculum and determining how teachings about people of color and anti-racism can be added to subjects ranging from history to music to literature. 

New next school year

This fall every school district launched new policies to protect against the spread of COVID-19, and next fall every school district will be required to include at least one Black and Latino studies class as an elective offering in their curriculum. 

The bill passed the legislature in 2019 and, as McCollum puts it, is just a start. 

“The legislation as it was passed does not include all of the things that we had hoped for,” she said. “We were hoping for a curriculum that centered on the history of race and racism in America and the inclusion of training and support in anti-racist practices for teachers teaching that course.”

Neither of those aspects were included, but that hasn’t stopped McCollum and the new Anti-Racist Teaching and Learning Collective from promoting this type of pedagogy to teachers and school districts across the state. 

“We didn’t just walk away from it when we didn’t get the amendment, we’ve been continuing to do our work within the community,” McCollum said.

The collective held a webinar in July, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and protests led by Black Lives Matter across the country, to discuss what the inclusion of anti-racist education would look like. It provided a space for teachers, parents and others to discuss and learn from each other. 

Other affiliates in the collective, including the Yale-New Haven Teacher Initiative, worked to facilitate the education of teachers who themselves were interested in incorporating anti-racism and the history of people of color in America into their curriculum.

“The quickest way to train teachers is to have them pair up with other teachers that are already teaching this way,” said Dan HoSang, an Associate Professor of Ethnicity, Race & Migration and American Studies at Yale University. 

This summer the Yale-New Haven Teacher Initiative trained 11 teachers who had volunteered to participate from the New Haven Public Schools. 

“There is a sincere and deep hunger among teachers of different grade levels and different subjects to think about their teaching in new ways,” HoSang said, “while districts have struggled to figure out how to support their teachers because they are thinking about how to standardize curriculum.” 

Instead, each individual teacher worked to see how they could fit these themes into their classroom. 

For example, a high school civics teacher worked to reframe how she teaches the constitution so it could be viewed through a lens of school and housing segregation in Connecticut and structural racism in the community. Another history teacher found ways to add indigenous people back into the full story of the United States instead of as only an auxiliary unit. A middle school English teacher found new texts rooted in the history of Jim Crow that could be taught from that historical context. 

“I think teachers are all very clear that the existing curriculum fails students in many ways. It doesn’t give them the skills to handle difficult issues or the ability to talk about race,” HoSang said. 

Although the legislation doesn’t explicitly call for these additions to all subjects, HoSang said most of the teachers he has worked with said their students’ parents want their children to learn to think this way. 

“Ultimately we think of that legislation as a floor rather than a ceiling,” he said.

Some parents want more

Even though a handful of individual teachers may be making changes to their classrooms and the state will soon require an elective in Black and Latino Studies to be offered, some parents have joined together to say broader, deeper changes to the curriculum are necessary.

“The first question is why was it relegated to an elective?” said Elijah Manning, a leader in the Connecticut Coalition for Educational Justice and a Culturally Responsive Curriculum and parent of two children in the Norwalk Public Schools. “When you relegate it to the side you leave it open for people to leave it there.” 

In mid-June, The Connecticut Coalition for Educational Justice and a Culturally Responsive Curriculum was formed by Nikki and JP Poulard and Kristin Alexander, parents of children in the Region 4 School District. 

The group has grown quickly to include more than 1,000 members, including parents and teachers from across the shoreline, Fairfield County and Connecticut River Valley. 

Instead of just one elective in high school, the group is hoping to see changes made to curriculum from pre-k through 12th grade. 

“We think it needs to start as soon as children start with education, and not just in one class,” Nikki Poulard said. 

In addition to changes in curriculum, such as the ones HoSang has worked with teachers to make, the coalition is hoping to see schools increase the ethnic diversity of their staff and require anti-racist and anti-bias training for all adults that work in the school system. 

“This year, we have committed publicly to forming a region-wide Equity Committee. This committee will consist of representatives from each of our school communities, as well as other stakeholders,” said Brian White, superintendent of schools in Region 4. “The Equity Committee will be purposed with evaluating the current efforts of our schools to promote learning environments that are welcoming, and inclusive of all students. As part of this work, the committee will conduct a self-study of our curriculum and identify areas of strength and needed improvement.”

At the state level, State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, a ranking member of the Education Committee, said expanding the mandates on school districts right now is just not realistic. 

“We just spent the last couple years putting out high school requirements, so my voice I think is needed to say, ‘slow down,’” McCarty said. “New requirements is a difficult conversation. There are ways to interweave certain topics, but requiring brand new courses is a lot. We just can’t keep piling more and more on.” 

According to Manning, simple ways teachers or districts can start is by expanding book lists or books in the libraries to include those written by and about people of color and women. Region 4, Poulard said, has already implemented this. 

He also recommended teaching about black inventors, scientists and writers during the elementary school grades. 

“Black Americans are more than slavery and the civil rights movement,” Manning said. “If children don’t learn in school to start seeing them as just the same importance to this country as white people, then we are never going to get through this whole thing.” 

Although Poulard and Manning both agreed that curriculums such as the 1619 project that have been developed to teach history through a different lens are good, but they are still just one subject, and still focused on slavery. 

“We want to focus on the positive,” Manning said. “Even local historians and people around here.” 

Concerns of others

Although many parents, according to teachers HoSang interviewed, report wanting their children to be taught in this new way, there has been some pushback/

In Region 17, when the district first launched a resources page for anti-racist teaching this summer, there were many residents that questioned what the school was teaching and why. 

“They ended up taking the website down,” Manning, who is working with the Board of Education and Equity Committee in Region 17, said. “It was really sad, because the whole thing is up for the community to be able to learn.” 

Other parents are concerned that the changes might be coming too fast or that these changes might take away from existing curriculum or that tension between students of different backgrounds may increase due to these teachings. 

According to HoSang, despite those that may be uncomfortable, these deep changes are necessary. 

“The students understand the world is not colorblind, that’s not their reality,” he said. “It’s not simply about adding the left out histories, that way presumes that the dominant story everyone gets is okay. The teachers that we are working with are much more interested in trying to tell the whole story.” 

For now, however, the state and school districts will be taking small steps. One new course, committees and a few more books available in the library. 

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