Joe Lawless is a white history teacher at George Washington High School in the city’s Far Northeast, and this year the main course he teaches is African American history.
Lawless embraces the Philadelphia School District’s mandate—the first of its kind in the country—that high school students take an African American history course before graduating. Harry Knight, a black history teacher at the same school, which has a diverse student body, disagrees.
“It’s a good idea to have it. Forcing it was a bad idea,” Knight said, suggesting that it be an elective. “My first-period class, where they are predominantly Caucasian, they’re like, ‘Why isn’t it multicultural?’ I agree with them.”
But there have been no vocal protests similar to those when the district endorsed the mandate in June 2005. Even then-House Speaker John Perzel (R., Phila.) entered the fray, saying students first should master reading, writing and math.
The mandate’s supporters argued that African American history had been neglected for so long in a district where nearly two-thirds of the students are black that a required course was the only way to ensure a proper education on the topic.
Opposition dissipated as the course was rolled out last year on a smaller scale. This year’s 10th graders are the first to come under the mandate. About 11,000 students are enrolled, including 1,100 juniors and seniors taking it as an elective.
Some still quietly oppose it.
Others who were concerned at first now like the course.
Dana King, a lead academic coach in the district and coauthor of the curriculum, said complaints had largely dwindled because people had seen that the course was not being presented in a way that would cause division between the races.
The course uses the textbook African-American History by lead author Darlene Clark Hine, a professor at Northwestern University, but draws on lots of other material. It begins with a six-week segment on Africa, covering ancient Egypt, Ethiopia and other areas, and proceeds to the present day. It is delivered in six segments, each beginning with a prompt or question.
Next year, lessons on the Caribbean and Philadelphia black history will be added, King said.
Officials from the district parents’ group and teachers’ union said they hadn’t received complaints. Neither has the NAACP, said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter.
The only blip he knew of occurred at Masterman, an academic magnet. Some parents and students, including his son, complained about a teacher who was unprepared. The school changed teachers, he said. Masterman’s principal did not return a call for comment.
Some district leaders still wish it were an elective.
About 80 high school teachers are giving the course. District officials said they did not have a racial breakdown. At George Washington, three are white and three black.
Lawless, who volunteered to teach the class, has attended some of the district’s summer and Saturday training for the course. The training is optional, and teachers are paid for it.
As he prepared, Lawless, who has a Temple University history degree, said he thought: “These are people I’ve never heard of before.”
Experts were unsure why more districts haven’t followed Philadelphia’s lead. Some suggested that African American history had been infused into regular courses much better than it had been in the past and that many large, urban districts were preoccupied with raising standardized test scores.
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a lobbying group for big-city districts, said more should follow Philadelphia.
The Course At a Glance
The course is divided into six segments, each beginning with a prompt or question.
Segment 1: How can we begin the study of the African-American (Africana) experience?
Segment 2: How did Africans preserve and affirm their way of life and use their identities as a means to resist enslavement (14201820)?
Segment 3: What were the similarities and differences in the practices of self-determination of Africans in the United States and their counterparts in the western hemisphere (18201865)?
Segment 4: How did Africans use their new geo-nationalist identities (African-Americans, Jamaicans, Haitians, Cubans, Ghanians, etc.) to resist racial segregation, colonization and imperialism (18651914)?
Segment 5: How did African-Americans make sense of and participate in international movements (1905present)?
Segment 6: How does our study of the Africana (African-American) experience help us reexamine how we learn history and reshape our view of contemporary humanity?
To see the full course curriculum, go to http://go.philly.com/afamhistory.
To see the curriculum for the district’s African American history course, go to http://go.philly.com/afamhistory.