Social Studies

Course in African, African-American History Debuts in Philadelphia

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 01, 2005 3 min read
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For the students at Philadelphia’s Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, much of what they’ve learned about African-American history has been centered on the South and embedded in American history and other courses.

But beginning this year, students at the selective magnet school—which serves students in grades 5 through 12—will have an entire course on African and African-American history, with some of the content centered on the experience of black people in Philadelphia.

While the class was optional for students at Masterman this year, students throughout the 205,000-student district will be required to take such a course in order to graduate, beginning with the class of 2009. The course is part of the district’s larger effort to retool the entire curriculum.

Some 5,000 students at nearly all of the district’s 61 high schools are taking it this fall.

Amy Cohen asked her seniors earlier this school year to write about their decision to take the class.

“A lot of kids said they’re taking the class because they felt that [African-American history] is something they hadn’t gotten in regular curriculum. That surprised me because I thought it was something that is covered in other classes,” said Ms. Cohen, who is teaching two classes on the subject at Masterman. About half the school’s 1,180 students are white, 30 percent are black, 14 percent are of Asian descent, and 6 percent are Hispanic. “They know more about what happened in places like Selma and Montgomery than they know about what happened right here.”

Ms. Cohen’s students were studying the Atlantic slave trade last week. The students will tour and research the city’s relevant historic sites later in the semester.

Elective Replaced

Some high schools had already offered such a course, but now the content will be standardized throughout the district, according to Dana Y. King, the district’s lead academic coach in African and African-American studies. Since 1969, the city has required the inclusion of racial and ethnic information throughout all curricula. But the topics had long been marginalized in textbooks and teaching, according to district descriptions of the new course.

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission, which controls the school system, recommended replacing one of five history electives with the mandatory course, a decision that drew praise and criticism from educators, scholars, and parents. Some parents also urged the district to design courses exploring the history and culture of other racial and ethnic groups, something district officials have said they are looking into.

Ms. Cohen said she understands arguments for and against making the class mandatory, but worries that having a separate curriculum will lead other teachers to leave out relevant lessons on African-American history in other courses.

District officials argued that the course would allow black students—who make up some two-thirds of the district’s student population—to learn more about their own heritage, while also building an understanding and appreciation of that legacy among students of other races.

The district is currently drafting its own textbook and supplementary materials, as well as pulling together Web resources and information on historical sites, to be used in the course in the future.

“Teachers have been able to teach the course all over the country, using various books, Web information, and taking trips,” Ms. King said. “But we really have never had a standardized way to teach it.”

The district began offering additional, voluntary professional-development sessions for teachers this past summer; weekend workshops will continue through the school year, Ms. King said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Course in African, African-American History Debuts in Philadelphia

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