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CPS Announces New African-American Studies Curriculum, But Charters Exempt

CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools will announce a new curriculum incorporating African-American studies into courses throughout all subject areas Thursday — but it won’t be taught to those attending charter schools.

The new curriculum, which was mandated by a 1991 state law, was designed for students in kindergarten to 10th grade and will be rolled out beginning in January, said Annette Gurley, chief officer of teaching and learning for CPS.

Gurley said the goal was to incorporate African-American studies throughout the year and across the board in existing courses, such as English, literature, arts, social sciences and history.

“Just teaching African-American history during Black History Month does not really do it justice,” Gurley told DNAinfo Chicago.

While there won’t be new courses added, CPS will expand black history to include teachings outside of just the black experience in the United States because in the past, “teaching black history did not include anything outside of America,” she said.

In statement issued Thursday, the CPS said the curriculum will ensure every student “is knowledgeable of and appreciates the richness of the African and African American cultures and their contributions to the building of our society — locally, nationally, and globally.”

The curriculum will not apply to 11th- or 12th-graders because high schools already offer African-American literature courses to those students, according to Leaura Materassi, director of special projects for CPS.

CPS officials could not explain why the curriculum had not been implemented previously, but acknowledged that once Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of the school system, was made aware of the situation last fall “she moved quickly to get the ball rolling,” Gurley said.

Still, earlier this year, some activist groups grew frustrated with some of the initial proposals for the curriculum and the slow progress in getting anything adopted. Some even suggested filing a lawsuit against CPS.

But this week, Tarrah Cooper, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said in a statement that the curriculum was being implemented now because “every school should have access to curriculum that teaches them about the contributions and histories of cultures from around the world. The mayor believes it is important to provide students with exposure to African and African-American history and culture.”

But the curriculum won’t apply to charter schools. While charter schools also receive tax dollars “the whole concept behind charter schools being created was to allow them to choose their own curriculum,” said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. “Most, if not all, charter schools in Chicago already offer this type of curriculum.”

About 90 percent of the 45,000 students at the 130 charter schools in Chicago are black or Hispanic, according to charter school network data. More than 400,000 CPS students attend the nation’s third largest school district.

While State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), who sponsored the state legislation mandating the curriculum, said she is glad that CPS finally is getting into compliance with the law, she lamented the fact that charters won’t be affected.

“It is unfortunate that charter schools won’t be included because all students need to be taught about black history now more than ever before,” Flowers said. “If the new curriculum will not be offered at charter schools, then perhaps charter schools should not accept state dollars.”

Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union, said by excluding charters from the requirements, it shows a “lack of transparency between charter and public schools.”

Others questioned who was allowed to have input into the new curriculum.

We Can Inc., a community group, made recommendations earlier this year to the school district about what to include, but as of Wednesday was unsure if any of its input was included.

“I was allowed to review a draft of the curriculum for one hour, which was not enough time to look through five binders of information,” said the group’s president Florence Cox, who became the first black woman to lead the Chicago School Board in 1992. “I never did see the final draft, so it is hard for me to support something I have not seen. It sounds like a ‘shell’ game to me.”

Cox said she hopes the curriculum, as Curley promised, indeed does begin with students learning about their ancestors from Africa and not just starting with figures like Martin Luther King Jr.

“There were great kings and queens of Africa our students need to know about in addition to the contributions black Americans made to our history,” Cox said. “We had a civilization before slavery, but a lot of our kids don’t know this.”

A private reception is set for 6 p.m. Thursday at the DuSable Museum of African-American History, 740 E. 56th Place, where community groups and organizations and elected officials will learn more about the curriculum, said Joel Hood, a spokesman for CPS.

In the end though, Cox said teaching students more about their heritage would help make the world a better place.

“If other people knew about our history, perhaps they would treat us better and we would treat each other better,” she said.

“If it’s successful, the curriculum could influence how other cultures are taught, Cooper said.

One of the goals for the new curriculum is to “serve as a model to be used by teachers to develop similar learning opportunities that emphasize contributions from all cultures,” added Cooper

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