As Some States Restrict Black Studies, New York City Expands It

New York City will launch a new Black studies curriculum next fall that could eventually be used across hundreds of schools, part of a local effort to embrace lessons on race and culture that have sharply divided school districts around the country along political lines.

The Black studies curriculum in social studies will launch in a handful of classrooms in September, before expanding across grades pre-K to 12. An Asian American and Pacific Islander curriculum, which was taught in about a dozen schools this fall, will also expand across the system in 2024. Some schools had already adopted an L.G.B.T.Q. curriculum supplement for children in fourth through twelfth grades last year.

More than 40 states have introduced or passed laws to restrict how issues of race and racism are taught. Recently, in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis banned a new Advanced Placement class in African American studies.

But there is another movement to expand teaching about race, discrimination and sexuality in some left-leaning places, marking a widening divide in what American students learn about the nation’s history and culture in school. Connecticut, Illinois and Washington, D.C., are adding new lessons about the experiences of people of color, while California will soon require students to take an ethnic studies course to graduate from high school.

In New York City, school officials said teachers would be encouraged to adopt the curriculums for now, but not required, though state lawmakers have introduced bills to mandate Asian American history and expand Black history education. Still, the city’s goal is much less ambitious than the one Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in 2021 to infuse core subjects with discussions about race and culture.

New York City was set to launch a $202 million curriculum that would have overhauled the core subjects of math and English language arts to include lessons and books about the vast “histories, languages and experiences” of city students. The city would have mandated the lessons for most of its schools.

The plan encountered some pushback at the time, however, and Mayor Eric Adams’s administration later jettisoned the effort, arguing that a systemwide curriculum overhaul across more than 1,500 schools was simply impractical. It was an illustration of the challenges of reimagining how students’ identities are encompassed in their education, even in places where changes have been in the works.

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In New York, more than four in five children are Latino, Black or Asian, and many students and families have pushed to see themselves reflected in what they learn.

Some are still demanding more from the city: At a recent protest on the steps of the Department of Education headquarters in Manhattan, dozens of teenagers called for more intensive Black history instruction and more diversity among educators.

“I feel like I’ve been stuck learning about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. over and over again,” Isabella Juma, 16, a sophomore in Queens who attended the protest, said in an interview. “You end up thinking that’s where your history started and ended, which is not true because Black Americans are making history every single day. We need to accurately represent that.”

New York City’s schools chancellor, David C. Banks, became the system’s leader months after Mr. de Blasio announced his plans to create a new universal math and reading curriculum that would have featured “rigorous, inclusive and affirming” lessons and was to be funded using federal pandemic relief dollars.

In his previous role as the leader of the Eagle Academy for Young Men, Mr. Banks had embraced what educators call “culturally responsive teaching,” the term many educators use to talk about lessons and classroom practices that consider the race, culture and identities of students.

But the current administration departed from the universal curriculum plan earlier this school year, as Chalkbeat reported at the time. Officials said it was unrealistic for a vast system where student needs differ widely, though the chancellor said last month that he empathized with the students at the recent protest.

“My exposure to Black studies curricula in particular is what has helped to shape me,” Mr. Banks said, adding that it’s “not just important for Black kids. It’s important for all.”

School officials said they are planning to develop a Hispanic and Latino curriculum eventually.

Traditionally, New York City schools have had broad leeway to select their curriculums, which are the collections of lesson plans, readings and assessments that guide the progression of classes. Previous school leaders hoped their plans would ease the burden on teachers to find materials, though wholesale curriculum changes can be tough to implement.

Other parts of the original plan — including the new social studies lessons that highlight underrepresented groups, as well as professional development for teachers on cultural issues — have moved forward.

Research suggests that approaches to teaching that focus on students’ cultures and identities can benefit them. In the city’s most commonly used 3-K to eighth grade curriculums in 2019, more than 80 percent of books were by white authors. Latino writers were particularly underrepresented, according to one analysis. (About 15 percent of the city’s traditional public school students are white; roughly 40 percent are Latino.)

The more limited scope of the city’s plans disappointed some families and advocates. Matt Gonzales, who focuses on education justice at New York University’s Metro Center, said that as a former math teacher, he often viewed math and science as the “most exciting places to incorporate Black and brown authors and hidden figures.”

“I think it was a missed opportunity by this administration to connect the dots,” he said. “We need to actually transform the larger curricular approach that we have and make sure it’s rooted from the ground in culturally responsiveness.”

The current Asian American curriculum includes lessons on civil rights and immigration, and older students also learn about xenophobia and citizenship. Under the plans for Black studies, prekindergarten teachers would discuss the concepts of communities and cultures. By fourth grade, children would explore Black African migrations and do case studies on places like Haiti or ancient African civilizations. Older students would explore movements for Black political rights, and economic issues including wealth building in Black communities.

Cyania Augustin, 16, said that she would appreciate a Black history education that places less emphasis on “just the parts where we were stolen, stolen from or being disadvantaged.”

In one of her current junior year courses at Bard High School Early College Queens, she recently learned about the Black Panthers. But she was first exposed to the group, as well as some other significant parts of Black history, on TikTok. “I find that to be a problem,” she said.

As she makes an effort to be more vocal in classroom discussions, she says it’s easier when the material is relevant to her own experiences. “If we’re learning about a female poet who happens to be Black, I’m going to step into the conversation,” she said.

Even in New York City, the efforts have been met with intense pushback at times, mirroring the conflicts in hundreds of school districts across the nation. Some families argue that such lessons and materials exacerbate divisions between students and are inappropriate for younger children, or could make white students ashamed of their backgrounds.

Some state lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried to ban critical race theory, a university-level framework that has been used as an umbrella term for lessons on race. Critical race theory is not taught in K-12 public schools in the state and there are no plans to introduce its concepts; other legislators introduced a bill this year to require that schools statewide adopt culturally responsive teaching.

Mamoona Hassan, a senior at Brooklyn Technical High School, said that she wishes the diversity of the city’s Asian American communities had been better reflected in her education.

As a child in a Bangladeshi family, Ms. Hassan saw firsthand the need to better educate not only students, but teachers too: While in high school, one assumed she was Indian, and began chatting with her about the country’s caste system.

But in a recent English class, Ms. Hassan, 17, was struck upon reading “Mother Tongue,” an essay by the author Amy Tan about her childhood as the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She hopes students encounter such stories more often.

“You feel a sense of satisfaction and validation,” she said. “The perpetual foreigner stereotype is still applied to us. And so if we’re included in even these little ways, it’s very much impactful and it makes us feel like we’re also American, and that we also belong to this country.”

Lola Fadulu contributed reporting.

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