Published November 23rd, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Classrooms should be safe spaces to learn, say two Kansas City teenagers.
Increasingly, K-12 classrooms have become hotbeds for debate about what should or should not be taught, especially when it centers on race and history.
Jude Anderson and Sanaa Best are friends and high school seniors at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy and have seen classes change over the past few years.
Anderson, who is white, and Best, who is Black, say classes on race and history are essential to building a more informed and compassionate society.
Including diverse racial and ethnic histories should be a “no brainer,” Anderson said.
He added: “I think that speaks volumes on why people don’t want to talk.”
Best responded: “When (race and history) are not taught, children who are not people of color … tend to be less sensitive to the things that we go through.”
“People who push back when teaching history as it is, as it was, you know, as it happened … that’s very dangerous,” she said. “Very, very, very dangerous.”
African American history wasn’t part of Lincoln’s curriculum until this year, Best’s senior year. During her sophomore year, though, one teacher made sure to have a Black History Month assembly. That was the first time she saw people like her represented in a school setting.
At home, however, her family taught her Black history – both the difficult and the inspiring. Like clockwork, every February her parents gathered the family to rewatch famous speeches and movies of Black leaders. Best rattled off names like Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X and other historical figures who’ve stuck with her.
But when the lessons she’d learned while watching TV in her parent’s bedroom suddenly took place in Lincoln’s classroom, she noticed a shift in dynamics, a disconnect.
“There is awkward silence in the classroom, because I guess people don’t know how to interpret that type of history yet, because it’s so new,” she explained.
”Yeah … it’s hard to watch,” he said. “But also when like-minded individuals of similar age … get together in a space it becomes easier to talk about.”
Best added: “Education goes so far, like ignorance is not bliss.”
These teens, like many of their peers, are cognizant of how education shapes who they become in society. Learning about it helps them, they insist.
Conversations about how identity, history and race intersect with current issues are already happening, they said. So why aren’t they learning how to navigate these conversations sooner?
School board meetings across the U.S. have become a catch-all for debate about a poorly understood academic framework — critical race theory or CRT.
During one Blue Valley School Board meeting, a presenter said CRT is “divisive material that teaches teachers to hate America and ultimately break down everyone to the privileged and the oppressed.”
The theory has also been mistakenly associated with diversity, equity and inclusion, and more recent reports show some believe it to be a part of schools’ mental health programs.
Public attendance at school board meetings has amplified a vocal few: the parents and politicians who are adverse to what has repeatedly been called “divisive” teachings. This inspired a group called the 1776 Project Political Action Committee to endorse certain school board candidates, which the PAC group announced in August.
Some candidates say they were endorsed without their knowledge, according to another Flatland report.
Seven of the 10 Kansas school board candidates who were endorsed by 1776 won the election, according to the Kansas Reflector, which includes new members in Olathe, Lansing and Blue Valley districts.
The locus of this festering issue appears to be discomfort when talking about and addressing race relations — past and present.
“It’s really hard sometimes for white folks like myself to see some of these issues when I’ve seen white people represented all through history, their presidents and their business leaders and their innovators and they’re doing all these great things,” said Tina Ellsworth, member of the National Council for the Social Studies. Ellsworth also is an assistant professor of education at Northwest Missouri University.
When she reflects on her own experiences as a young student, she realizes there were gaps in her knowledge.
“I completely missed the fact that, ‘Oh, we never talked about Black inventors. We never talked about Black people fighting for agency’.”
Thus the push for change. The data bear out the negative implications of not teaching with race and holistic histories in mind.
A U.S. Department of Education study from 2018 drew the connection between poor racial and ethnic representation and achievement gaps and retention rates, among other education disparities.
“We cannot ignore the fact that data is glaringly evident that we are not doing right by our students of color,” Ellsworth said. “We’re just not.”
She’s a few months out from exiting the K-12 world, but saw people working behind the scenes to help shape the classes that will help close those gaps.
Before joining the higher education world, she was part of a curriculum committee. Composed of a group of parents, educators and administrators, the process to develop a curriculum takes about two years. She wants folks to understand that.
It’s a well thought-out process, she said.
But the fight against certain racial and historical teachings continues, at times through the legislature.
Missouri is one of many states where a law has been proposed to ban critical race theory in K-12 classrooms.
House Bill No. 952 outlines elements the attorney general considers CRT adjacent, which include programs like 1619, “BLM at schools” or anything resembling that content. The bill states that if a publicly funded school is found implementing these programs, it has 30 days to cease.
The bill proposes that, if it doesn’t, the state board shall direct the department of elementary and secondary education to withhold a maximum of ten percent of the monthly distribution of state formula funding to the education entity.
A Brookings Institute analysis summarized the goal of bills like these:
“The legislations mostly ban the discussion, training, and/or orientation that the U.S. is inherently racist as well as any discussions about conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression. These parameters also extend beyond race to include gender lectures and discussions.”
This, education experts argue, doesn’t give youth the space to process.
Kansas City area educators who have introduced coursework that embodies the breadth and nuance of U.S. history say their students are ready to have honest discussions.
Crystal Everett, real world learning coordinator at Kansas City Public Schools, was part of the group that applied for and earned a grant to teach the 1619 curriculum. Tymia Morgan, who works at Central High School, was one of the two teachers to take that material and implement it in her classrooms.
Everett and Morgan are long-time friends and products of the KCPS system who went to predominantly white universities, returned to Kansas City and wanted to give back to their community.
“Our job in public education or education in general is not to tell people how to think, but give them the resources to think critically and not just accept everything that they’re given,” Everett said.
In the KSPS district, more than half of the students are Black, 27% Latino, 11% white and 8% other.
Morgan has been surprised by the conversations students are having. Students who were otherwise quiet speak up.
“They’re chiming in in ways that are thoughtful, that are compassionate. So it’s helping me to see a different side of my students,” Morgan said, who teaches seniors.
At that point in their lives, she explained, those students are about to enter the real world where their actions have very real consequences.
She called her class “a space (that) makes learning current.”
Information is available with a click or a swipe. What they don’t find in education settings youth will find elsewhere, at risk of being digested out of context.
On the other side of the coin, students want to be heard and seen. They crave safe spaces to talk and learn.
PaKou Her, who works for a family advocacy group and has been a racial equity trainer for the past 25 years, has led education sessions for schools. She knows how complex these situations are. Her, who is Asian American, says removing or ignoring non-white histories doesn’t just eliminate narratives.
It erases people.
“What little truth young people are getting, they’re getting even less of it and are essentially engaged in what I would call a larger social project to erase huge parts of history and, or minimize them so that they no longer matter,” she said.
That’s Jimmy Beason II’s experience too.
Beason is a member of the Osage Nation and a professor of American Indian Studies at Haskell Indian Nations. He said Indigenous history, like that of his own tribe, has historically been paper thin in U.S. school books.
Students are taught of Native Americans living in the past but not in the present.
“Demeaning and minimizing the indigenous presence usually takes place through the educational curriculums of American schooling, where the colonial history is being placed, above all the other narratives,” he said. “So any kind of settler colonial violence is minimized, and actually valorized and turned into, you know, holidays.”
He added: “It comes back down to the schooling.”
To the youth who are in these classrooms, some only one year away from being part of adult society, they want nothing more than to have the permission to tease out big ideas and address questions about race with their peers.
But they need proper guidance.
“I can’t put myself in a mindset where somebody would think that racial training would be harmful to their child,” Best said.
“We spend a lot of our time in their classrooms, and if they’re not instilling this in us, where do we learn it from? We need to know how to coexist.”
Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.