Apr 03, 2020

Austin Educators look beyond Texas’ African American studies course

Reporting Texas

WATCH: UT students talk about African American History

African American heritage runs deep in Texas. From the horror of slavery to the civil rights movement and beyond, Texas’ African American population has played a critical role in the state’s economic and cultural development.

Yet Texas’ publication education system has downplayed African American history in its curriculum – until now, with the advent of a statewide African American studies course.

“I think there is resistance to the idea that there are multiple narratives in understanding the history of this country,” says Kevin Cockley, director of UT Austin’s Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis. “Communities of color are saying that the curriculum has been inadequate in telling the stories of diverse populations that have long been a part of the fabric of this country.”

The 2018 approval of a statewide Mexican American studies course fueled the effort to expand ethnic studies in Texas, including the State Board of Education’s approval of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards for a statewide, elective African American studies course on Jan. 31.

Whether or not districts use the curriculum depends on local board approval and is anticipated as soon as the 2020-2021 school-year. But in the face of school closures and declining African American student representation, Austin community members question the course’s power to revise years of policy that disenfranchises the Black student population.

Just this past December, Stephanie Hawley, Austin ISD’s Chief Equity Officer, called school closure plans inequitable. She described the process as “21st century racism” against historically under served black and brown communities.

Decades of racial inequality in Austin

These school closures are not the first of their kind. During 1970s desegregation efforts, Austin ISD closed two all-black campuses. Black students were bused to predominantly white schools outside of the “Negro district” established by the 1928 City Plan. They suddenly found themselves in separate, under performing classrooms.

Against that backdrop, ethnic studies courses have sometimes faced uphill battles to adoption. In 2012, Lawmakers shot down Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies course on the basis of promoting “resentment toward a race or class of people.” The decision remained until 2017, when a federal judge ruled it a product of racism. Similarly, Texas’ Mexican American studies course faced nearly five years of push-back by Republican board members who said the course was racially divisive. In 2018, Texas became the first state with a stand-alone Mexican American studies course.

Texas’ African American studies elective marks a shift in long-standing opposition to courses of its kind. Some school districts have greeted the course with overwhelming support.

The African American studies curriculum originated as a collaboration between Dallas ISD educators and its Racial Equity Office. Trialed this academic school year, high school students across Dallas study the social, cultural and economic development of the African American experience. The course aims to address Black history left uncovered by standard U.S. and Texas history TEKS; this includes the global impact of African civilizations prior to the transatlantic slave trade and expands beyond traditional slave narratives as the sole portrayal of the African American experience.

“We wanted to make sure we picked out some of the most important individuals, processes and experiences we thought people hadn’t heard about,” said Jamila Thomas, former director of Dallas ISD’s Racial Equity Office.

Austin schools trustee Latisha Anderson says she experienced the inch-deep coverage of African American history as a former Austin  student. Few black figures graced the pages of her history textbooks, she blindly performed Cotton-Eyed Joe — a song containing racist undertones — at school recitals, and when she was bused between Kealing Middle School and Sunset Valley elementary school, Anderson struggled to understand the remnants of segregation.

“As a child, I didn’t understand the why,” Anderson said. “Essentially, what we learned about was Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall. It wasn’t really in depth,” Anderson said.

Anderson represents schools in District 1, Austin’s largest academic boundary. Located in East Austin, these 28 schools house predominantly Latino and African American student populations. Anderson believes the thought of an African American studies course is empowering for Black students, but says Austin still favors wealthy newcomers, who can afford rising real estate prices, over East Austin’s existing residents.

“I can remember a time when certain news stations would call East Austin the slums, and now it’s Central East Austin,” Anderson said. “It has a huge impact on our neighborhood schools when you see pets and not kids.”

And the arrival of African American studies in Austin schools may be coming too late, at least for too many black children.

Robert Lowe, a research associate for UT’s Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, says Austin’s African American student population has undergone mass migration out of central Austin due to longstanding affordability issues, or gentrification. Lowe says students are moving to suburban districts and charter schools. The result: a nearly 46 percent drop in Austin’s black student body within fifteen years, with only 5,957 students remaining as of 2019.

“You have a longstanding distrust within the black community, and I’m not sure that (a course) is enough to make them come back to AISD,” says Lowe. “There’s a level of mistrust already put there, and the district will have to work really hard to try to rebuild that trust. They want action.”

This won’t be the first ethnic studies program in Austin

Austin schools have had broader ethnic studies for several years. Jessica Jolliffe, Austin’s Assistant Director of Humanities, identified a need for representation in the school district and in 2016, she developed an ethnic studies course.

Following a model established by the San Francisco Unified School District, Jolliffe sought to promote engagement and attendance, increase GPAs and advance credit acquisition for disadvantaged students. At the curriculum’s core: various themes related to race and identity, with a focus on inclusivity and activism.

The course adapts standard social studies requirements to fit the contemporary, diverse classroom. The curriculum’s versatility allows instructors to develop personalized lesson plans that cater to the social, cultural and historical composition of every campus. Thirteen out of 15 AISD high schools offer the course this school year.

Carlen Floyd, an Ethnic Studies instructor at James Bowie High School, says the course allows students to learn about their racial backgrounds without a prescribed Texas Education Agency curriculum. Just this school year, Floyd’s class has covered critical race theory, African American history, Mexican American history and Native American history.

She believes the course is momentous for her students of color, who have few opportunities to explore and discuss their histories in the public-school system. Round table discussions give students the opportunity to share unique cultural experiences with classmates — a first for many of her students, says Floyd. Floyd plans on ending the semester discussing issues faced by Austin’s minority communities.

“We get to slow down and dig, and students often get outraged,” Floyd said. “They wonder why they didn’t already know these histories.”

Texas’ African American studies course is on track for approval this April. In the meantime, the Austin school will focus on expanding localized ethnic studies efforts, including its own African American studies course taught at Austin High School.