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Black history education in Illinois schools could soon expand. Here's what to know

Black history education in Illinois schools could soon expand. Here's what to know

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Sarah Scheufele admits that she hasn't had all of the answers over the last year.

Between the Jan. 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol and the peaceful protests at the Illinois State Capitol and throughout the country following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, she posed a question, "How much do you tell a nine-year-old about what's going on?"

Her son, Grayson, is a third-grader at Lindsay Elementary School. While she was unable to answer every one of his questions over the last year, she was able to answer the question she posed.

"I was thinking about that question, specifically from a mother's point of view because that's my point of view," she said. "Black mothers don't necessarily have that option of not telling their kids about these things. So why should I have that option?"

Growing up in the small town of Pawnee, which is more than 97% white, she was surrounded by people who looked like her. Still, her father always made a point to add context when she brought home a history lesson or homework assignment that he thought didn't paint a complete or accurate picture. She is now building on that practice with her son.

"We talked about the attack on the Capitol," Scheufele said. "But also, comparing that to this summer where there's this military presence if you see people of color protesting.

"That difference in response, and that difference in assumptions — that was a really, really hard conversation to have. I found myself getting choked up and unable to answer some of his questions."

Still, she said the conversation was necessary.

Scheufele isn't alone. New legislation sitting on Gov. JB Pritzker's desk would require every public school student throughout the state to take a unit of Black history. The revised standards would include topics like the history of pre-enslavement Black people, slavery in America, the study of how Black people came to be enslaved, and the socio-economic struggles African Americans face in achieving fair and equal treatment under the nation's laws.

In changing the standards, the legislation would establish an Inclusive American History Commission to assist the Illinois State Board of Education in reviewing textbooks and learning materials that reflect diverse people. The commission would also work to ensure educators have the training to implement the changes.

While some are doubtful that school districts will be able to cover history as comprehensively as the legislation calls for, others think the changes are necessary and long overdue.

"It's not fair for him to go out in the world, thinking that all of this very sanitized history is what happened, and to behave that way," said Scheufele of the way much of history has been presented to her son under the current standards. "There were no female inventors, there were no Black inventors, there were no powerful people of color — it's just not fair to let him go out with that view, because that's not the case. The reality is, of course, that there were all these people who were minoritized and who had these great impacts on society but were never given credit for it. I just don't want him to go out thinking that because he had the privilege of being born male and white, that he's somehow destined for great things."

Springfield High social studies teacher Roy Gully admits that he rarely uses the textbook when he teaches his classes.

As the only Black teacher in the school's history department, he takes pride in ensuring that his students see themselves represented in his classroom.

"When I grew up, history was whitewashed, and the truth wasn't always told," Gully said. "You definitely didn't get different angles and perspectives from minorities. It's been a passion of mine to personally try to correct that."

The new legislation, he said, reaffirms the inclusive approach he has taught his history classes with over the last two decades.

The history book Springfield High currently uses is 13 years old. Even though he doesn't really use the Prentice Hall, America: Pathways to the Present book, he said regularly relying on it to guide teaching would make the inclusion he values difficult.

"Different perspectives, if we use the current edition, would absolutely be lost," Gully said.

That is part of the reason he was quick to volunteer to be on the textbook committee that has spent part of this school year looking for a new history book.

"I feel 100% confident that the new textbook we're adopting addresses the problems that have plagued history in the past, which is not being inclusive and not really focusing on all aspects of history," Gully said. "In fact, one of the highlights of our current book that we're recommending to the board is an entire section dealing with racism. That was something that really stood out to us. They have sections of minority history, specifically African American history, in separate parts of the book. But also, we found a lot of minority history embedded in the chapters and the activities within the book."

After looking at textbooks for the last 20 years, he said the Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt book the committee presented to the district's curriculum council last week was a step in the right direction.

"Selecting a U.S. History textbook is only the starting point," said Debbie Thomas, who is the literacy, social science and library coordinator for District 186.

In an effort to ensure there is diversity in the history taught across the state, the education reform bill sent to Pritzker earlier this month also aims to reduce barriers to obtaining teaching credentials.

"There was testimony by different scholarships, even Teach For America and some of the others, that identified that they had good male and female minority applicants who had a 2.8 or 2.9 GPA," said Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, and lead sponsor of the bill. "But because they didn't have a 3.0, it just automatically disqualified them from being a teacher. But that GPA shouldn't have been the only indicator that says whether or not a person could be a good teacher."

As such, the legislation removes the need for a cumulative 3.0 GPA to obtain an alternative teacher licensure in the state. The bill would also increase financial support in a way that prioritizes diversifying the teacher pipeline.

Springfield's District 186 had a Black student population of 40.7% in 2020, according to ISBE data. The recent data shows there was about an equal number of white students — 40.2% — in the schools. Those demographics, however, were not reflected in the district's educators. Data from last year shows that 87.8% of the teachers were white, while 7.1% were Black.

In his sixth year teaching and coaching football at Springfield High, Gully is part of the Grow Your Own Committee, a group working with the teacher's union and district to address the long-standing lack of teacher diversity.

"When you are a student — especially a high school student — that walks around a building and doesn't see diversity; doesn't see people that look like you if you are a minority, in teaching positions, it is absolutely an issue," Gully said. "I'm trying to be a part of the solution."

State Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, sees a lot of power in what is taught in history classes.

As a former history teacher — and one of the sponsors of the education reform bill — he thinks teaching history where people see themselves and their contributions, along with the contributions of others, could create more understanding and sensitivity amongst people. He said it is more harmful than helpful when history is not taught in an inclusive and representative way,

"Think about how society is shaped by these very teachings," Ford said. "This is the history that people like teachers, police officers and doctors are trained with. If they don't see Black people and minorities as their equals, it makes them not sensitive to anyone else the way they should be."

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Currently, Illinois does require a unit of Black history to be taught in public schools. However, the lack of specifications such as which grade levels must take the unit and how much time is spent covering topics, is why supporters consider the new legislation is necessary.

Tiffani Saunders, an assistant professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield, said her students often tell her they wish they had learned more about Black history before reaching college.

"I know when I've taught history, I've always started by rooting history in Africa — going back and showing the rich history of Africans as a group of people prior to their enslavement," Saunders said. "Enslavement is part of that story. But it's not the beginning of the story."

Some schools and districts admit that they need to do better, especially when it comes to incorporating more Black history in their curriculums among the younger grades.

"We have always included instruction about African American history and the contributions of great Black individuals during Black History Month," said Thomas, the literacy coordinator for District 186 about inclusion teachings in elementary schools. "This isn't enough. So we are creating additional African American history units to be taught at different times of the year."

However, some educators in the district, like Dubois Elementary visual arts teacher Elizabeth Macy, said the incorporation of inclusive history should not be limited to social studies classes.

"You don't just teach the value of someone, or a culture, or a population of people on one day, or on one month," Macy said. "If you truly want children to understand and have agency and feel empowered, but have empathy as well, you're teaching it all throughout. It's woven in what you do."

For fifth-graders, District 186 is creating a Civil War unit focused on teaching students about the various roles people play in historical events — such as victims, perpetrators, bystanders and upstanders. In identifying those roles, educators will discuss the importance of standing up for the rights of other groups of people, like African Americans and women.

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"The state, our school districts and our schools don't consistently share information about the different cultures throughout our world," Macy said. "That's when you start having kids who have ideas, because there's not that education."

Still, those who opposed the legislation wonder where the line will be drawn in how much time is spent covering Black history.

"Time does not permit any public K-12 school to teach the history of any country or identity group comprehensively," said Laurie Higgins of Illinois Family Institute. "The partisan view that K-12 schools should teach about the pre-enslavement of Black people from 3,000 BCE to AD 1619 is both absurd and doctrinaire. If public schools are going to mandate the study of the reasons why Black people came to be enslaved, are they going to require that students study those reasons in context of the worldwide history of slavery and the participation of African Blacks in the slave trade?"

The effort to teach more inclusive history in schools throughout Illinois is not new.

In the early 1990s, former Democratic Sen. Bill Shaw pushed for a law that would require the schools in the state to teach Black history.

"I would say over the last 30 years, there's been about four or five attempts," said Lightford, chair of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus who has been pushing for changes to the history standards for nearly two decades as a member of the Senate education committee. "These were actual measures that passed both chambers, were signed by the governor into law, and they were completely ignored and never happened. I'm just thinking what a difference three generations would have made right now if we were all learning how to love ourselves and love each other as a community."

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In 2018, Rep. Ford filed a bill that established a Black History Curriculum Task Force to audit every Illinois school district's K-12 history curriculum. As part of the audit, school districts were to complete a survey.

The bill, House Resolution 1098, required the audit completed and the final report filed by Jan. 9, 2019. At that point, the task force was to be dissolved. However, that never happened.

"The Black History Curriculum Task Force has not yet finalized its report and recommendations," ISBE spokesperson Jackie Matthews told The State Journal-Register in an email on Tuesday. "Its next meeting is March 4."

Ford says the school districts are slow to return the surveys.

"We're still waiting on the 852 school districts to complete the survey so that we can learn what their curriculum is that they're using," he explained.

Once signed into law, the changes within the education reform bill would take place in phases and the ISBE would need to adopt the revised and inclusive social science learning standards on or before July 1, 2021.

As many times as she has seen other inclusive history efforts fail or go ignored, Lightford said she has hope that this legislation will be different.

"I just think we're in a new place."

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