NEWARK, NJ — This time last year, just before Newark Public Schools took back local control from the state, a conversation about implementing black and Latinx history curriculum in Newark was just that: a conversation, and one that educators, community members and advocates often felt was falling on deaf ears in light of uncertainty about the district’s capacity to meet the challenge.
Now, as the district prepares to regain local control of Program and Instruction in February, the Board of Education is driving home a commitment to culturally relevant, responsive education and thinking carefully about how it represents that commitment to the greater community. Thanks to that pledge, new, cutting-edge Amistad curriculum is on track to enter classrooms as soon as September 2020.
Rooted in the state’s Amistad law, legislation passed in 2002 that requires New Jersey schools to incorporate African American history into its social studies curriculum, the Board of Education’s Program and Instruction Committee has established a set of priorities that aims to go beyond what the mandate requires, according to board member and committee chair A’Dorian Murray-Thomas.
“There is a lot of really great work happening in our schools and our classrooms, but how do we get that work out in a meaningful way to make it even better?” Murray-Thomas asked the board.
State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet is cracking down on districts throughout the state to enforce the law, which has had little follow-through since its passage. Districts will now have to comply with new requirements to implement curriculum under QSAC, the Department of Education's monitoring and district self-evaluation system for public school districts.
Gov. Phil Murphy also announced in November a new initiative to better prepare the state’s teachers to teach black history by requiring travel to sites associated with the slave trade in the United States.
“The days of this being optional for districts in the state is no longer, and if districts don’t comply, you will be negatively impacted according to QSAC indicators,” said board member Reginald Bledsoe. “The full implementation and going through and actually developing the curriculum has not been the discussion statewide, so thank God now it’s an indicator where [we are required by the state] to do this.”
Beyond infusing black and Latinx history into social studies curriculum and ensuring teachers are equipped to deliver it, the board is working with the Department of Teaching and Learning to create workshops, seminars, institutes, memorials and other events that raise public awareness about the importance of black Americans in the country’s growth and development in a global context.
In November, award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones visited Weequahic High School for the district’s 1619 Project event, which saw students perform original writing, skits and dances confronting the grim realities of slavery and racism in the U.S. Students spent months preparing by studying the New York Times’ 1619 project, a collection of essays and poems in New York Times Magazine that takes an honest look at black history and resistance. That work is continuing throughout the high schools to ensure consistency.
As the board moves forward in developing what cultural relevance looks like strategically for the district, Anzella King-Nelms, the district’s highly qualified professional, told the Program and Instruction committee that it has the option to invite an official from the state as a resource.
Currently, an observational study is being done at Central High School through the Newest Americans, a multimedia laboratory where visual storytellers, journalists and artists collaborate with academics and students to document the stories that radiate from Rutgers University-Newark. A formal collaboration between students and social studies department chairs at CHS is also forming the basis of curricular units for U.S. history 2 classes at Newark high schools.
On a K-5 level, English Language Arts (ELA) and social studies curricular units like “Human Rights Goes to School” and a third grade intersectional civil rights history unit are being tested and written by staff. Mary Ann Riley, executive director of Teaching and Learning, said the units will be ready for the board of education to review by May 2020.
“We’re building curriculum now, we’re not waiting to build it,” Riley said. “It’s deep work reflected from kindergarten all the way through grade 12.”
Source of Knowledge, Newark’s only black-owned book store, is partnering with the district to provide books and literacy that support the district’s aims to provide a complete and accurate history to students by authors who reflect their heritage. The district and Source of Knowledge will not only provide the literacy to students, but to the parents and teachers responsible for their education.
“It’s very important for us, I feel like we’re able as a resource to be able to give back to the community that’s given to us, and that we’ve been in for so many years,” said Masani Barnwell, co-owner of Source of Knowledge. “We’ll be providing books that tell our history, that have children with melanated skin in them, to entertain as well as educate.”
The full comprehensive strategy for Amistad curriculum will fall in line with the district’s 10-year strategic plan coming in June 2020, according to Murray-Thomas. The goal by next September is to have an actual Amistad-based curriculum that is not just infused or an optional supplement, but an independent curriculum.
“Infusion is ok for now, but the goal is for that to never be the solution in the long term. The hope would be that our young people would be learning about their real history and the real history of this country is some semblance now as we inherited a district that couldn’t fully govern itself,” Murray-Thomas said.
Newark was one of the first districts in the state to have an Amistad curriculum during state operation, according to Superintendent Roger Leon. The old curriculum existed as a stand-alone subject rather than part of U.S. history 1 and 2 classes before being incorporated. Leon said that Assemblyman William Payne, one of the Amistad Bill’s original sponsors, is looking at the district’s work to help guide other schools to develop and implement their own curriculum.