Maame Obeng, an African-American student at Danbury High School, said she typically dreads Black History Month, which begins every year on Feb. 1.
“I do not look forward to hearing about the Civil War, to hearing about slavery, to hearing about African-Americans and segregation,” Obeng said at a round-table discussion of lawmakers and educational leaders on Tuesday.
“Looking around my class, I felt like everybody is staring at me because I was the only African-American in my classes. I just didn’t feel comfortable learning about those things.”
Knijah Puryear, Obeng’s classmate at Danbury High and a member of the Black Lives Matter club, said she rarely learns anything substantial about African-American history in school.
“You see Lincoln and you see Kennedy,” she said. “You don’t see Maya Angelou or Madame C.J. Walker... You shouldn’t have to get into a club just to hear about your history or someone else’s history.”
Instead of studying small units across the traditional social studies curriculum, Obeng, Puryear and other Connecticut high school students of color can soon enroll in a year-long course in African American, Black, Latino and Puerto Rican studies — the result of a groundbreaking new law signed by Gov. Ned Lamont last year.
Last year, Connecticut became the first U.S. state to require high schools to offer such a class, which may be taken as a full-year elective beginning in the 2021-2022 academic year. By fall 2022, every Connecticut high school will be required to teach the course.
The state Department of Education will conduct audits between July 2022 and July 2024 to make sure the curriculum is being followed by every local and regional board of education.
“I think this day is really, really important in terms of what it says about who we are as Americans and what it says about education,” Gov. Lamont, a self-described White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, said on Tuesday.
“We’re not a melting pot. We are an incredibly diverse group of folks who have got to better understand who we are and where we’re from and that’s what this curriculum is all about.”
The Zoom call celebrating Black History Month took place just one day before Connecticut education Commissioner Miguel Cardona’s appearance before the Senate’s education committee Wednesday for a hearing on his nomination to serve as the next U.S. education secretary under President Joe Biden.
State Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, who is the leader of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus in the General Assembly, said that Connecticut — long considered one of the most segregated U.S. states — will soon be recognized as an educational leader because of the new course.
“We are going to actually continue building off the platform basically of Dr. Cardona as he moves his agenda to Washington,” Reyes said. “He’s going to take the model that he put here in Connecticut and move it forward.”
State Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, a 30-year educator who helped craft the legislation, said the curriculum was long overdue.
“There’s a line I always use: You can’t be what you don’t see, and when you don’t see your stories in the curriculum, you lose motivation,” McCrory said. “You lose self esteem. When you see your stories, the stories of your families, your brothers or sisters and uncles embedded into the curriculum, it makes that that curriculum come home, come to life.”
The panel also included Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, State Education Deputy Commissioner Desi Nesmith, state Rep. Bobby Sanchez, state Rep. Bobby Gibson and Hartford Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez.
Ingrid Canady, executive director of the State Education Resource Center (SERC), said the new curriculum was designed to serve more than just communities and students of color.
“This is curriculum,” Canady said. “It’s about all of us. By acknowledging the truth of the painful mistakes that were made in the past and lived in the stories of the communities that through blood, sweat and tears built this nation, we can envision healing, restoration, unity and change.”
Michael Hamad can be reached at email@example.com.