A new education bill seeks to add African-American studies to the social studies curriculum in Connecticut public schools. High school students testifying before the legislature this week said loud and clear that Black history is more than just Rosa Parks, slavery and civil rights.
Students from across the state gathered in a crowded room at the Capitol Building to speak up in support of House Bill No. 7082: An Act Concerning The Inclusion of African-American Studies in The Public School Curriculum.
"I support the enactment of this bill because as an African-American male, I tend to feel isolated in the classroom due to the fact that the other U.S. history curriculum focuses on white exceptionalism and black inferiority," said Shawn Brooks, a senior at Science and Technology Magnet High School in New London. "There is a determent of being proud to be African-American, which plays a role into anti-blackness, self-hate, colorism and so on."
Brooks was one of several students to testify from Hearing Youth Voices, a youth-led social justice organization. More than 150 written testimonies were submitted regarding the bill. His twin brother, Shane, also testified.
"Going to a public school with a lack of African-American studies being taught in the school system made me feel irrelevant and unheard," Brooks said. "Having this bill passed will not just expand African Americans' knowledge but other races as well."
Many students told legislators that their schools rarely teach about black history beyond Black History Month, if at all, and if it is taught, it's often limited to slavery, civil rights, and "recycled" content that lacks detail and depth about the inventions, accomplishments, literature, art, and cultures of African-Americans and people from the African diaspora.
Benie N'Sumbu, a senior at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in New Haven, emigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo with her family when she was five.
"It was like the more American I become, the less African I became and I felt like I couldn't do both," N'Sumbu said.
She remembers feeling rejected by white and black classmates.
"Throughout elementary and middle school, I endured accustations from my classmates, that I acted white—," said N'Sumbu, "the assertion being that since I was quiet, a high achieving student and didn't speak African-American vernacular English that I could only be described as trying to be white. This resulted in years of internalized racism."
N'Sumbu is a member of the non-profit organization Students for Educational Justice (SEJ). SEJ is calling for amendents to the bill including a "History of Race and The History of Racism in the United States" curriculum, required racial bias trainings for social studies teachers and administrators, and the creation of a curriculum-building and oversight committee.
According to the State Department of Education, 91 percent of teachers in Connecticut are white. A data analysis by CT Mirror showed that in 2017, 23 school districts did not have a single educator of color on staff.
In the Southern Poverty Law Center 2017 report, Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, 58 percent of teachers reported that they were dissatisfied with their textbooks and 39 percent said their state offered "little or no support" for teaching about slavery. And, teachers in some school districts across the country have been critcized for creating insensitive assignments about slavery.
Students also expressed support for House Bill No. 7083: An Act Concerning The Inclusion of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies In The Public School Curriculum. Connecticut has a population of more than 300,000 Puerto Ricans. In during the 2017-2018 school year, Hartford schools enrolled nearly 450 evacuees after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
"Being both Black and Puerto Rican, I know little about either of my histories other than the fact that slavery and genocide were involved in both, " said Taylin Santiago, a student at New London High School and a member of Hearing Youth Voices. "Many students I go to school with don't know what it's like to go to bed hungry, many don't understand the fear of police regarding their safety, many don't understand being watched in the store just because you have melanin your skin."
Last year, Senate Bill No. 452: An Act Concerning The Inclusion of Holocaust And Genocide Education and Awareness In The Social Studies Curriculum passed. It then took roughly eight months to develop the materials, resources and curriculum, according to the education department's Director of Communications, Peter Yazbak.
"We have a social studies consultant in-house who'd engage and work with a large group of educators to produce curriculum guidelines and materials," Yazbak said. "We'd also involve local educators and administrators in the process." Yazbak added that the department is looking into developing guidelines for "culturally sensitive classrooms."
The current bills call for the new curricula to be implemented by the start of the 2019-2020 school year in July. Comissioner Diana Wentzell wrote in a statement that the department is "very supportive" of H.B. 7082 and H.B. 7083 but said, "in order for the Department to engage appropriate stakeholders and promulgate two sets of guidelines, we will need the effective dates in these proposals to be extended to July 1, 2021."
The Education Committee is slated to vote both bills out of the committee by the end of next week.