Parents split over Afrocentric curriculum plan

Nomaan Merchant

As Evanston/Skokie School District 65 discusses the creation of an African-centered curriculum pilot program, other schools across the United States with a similar system have successfully raised the test scores of black students.

At one African-centered magnet school in Kansas City, Mo., students are immersed in African culture and history throughout the day.

According to Janeda Oliver, the assistant principal of J.S. Chick Elementary School, students learn about achievements of Africans and blacks daily alongside regular education.

Fourth graders at Chick, for example, take a more in-depth look than general education students at the slave trade and the Middle Passage.

“They will actually utilize those maps (of Africa and the Atlantic Ocean) and learn those concepts,” Oliver said. “Children receive the full picture in that they learn about the core concepts, but they also learn about their own identity as well.”

Teachers at the school place a strong emphasis on reading and writing “all day, every day, ” Oliver said. Students also study the ancient African traditions of Nguzo Saba and Ma’at that incorporate morals, such as truth and justice.

“The child feels at home,” Oliver said. “You may or may not experience that in a traditional school.”

After finishing fifth grade, Chick students enter an African-centered middle school.

Chick established an African-centered program in 1990 and serves about 250 students. The school exceeded state averages on reading and math tests. But Oliver was unable to say whether Chick’s test scores increased after adopting the program.

Chick’s student body is almost completely black, although admission is open to all students. District 65 will follow the same plan, district officials said. They anticipate that the program will attract mostly black families.

“I’m not trying to discriminate,” District 65 board member Jerome Summers said. “I would prefer it be open to whomever would come.”

The district school board’s Program and Policy Committee will discuss the proposal on March 7 before the board votes on March 20.

But Oliver said a limited African-centered program like the one local school officials proposed might not produce the same results as at Chick, where the entire school is African-centered.

“I’ve seen it more successful with the entire school,” Oliver said. “It’s not more of an add-on program.”

A limited program could work provided all teachers in the school, including those not teaching the special curriculum, receive professional development, Oliver said. District 65 budgeted for sensitivity training for its faculty and staff in its original proposal to help raise black test scores.

Many local residents supported the proposal at a Tuesday meeting of the district’s African American Student Achievement Committee.

Committee members expressed dismay that many district parents have said they dislike the pilot program.

Loud arguments broke out several times over curriculum materials and training of the teachers in the pilot.

Finally, Superintendent Hardy Murphy called for silence and forcefully addressed the room, pounding his hand on a table as he told the committee to remain united before the final meeting to decide the pilot’s fate.

“I don’t think I’ve been a part of anything that I’ve been more proud of,” Murphy said. “It’s only admirable for us to continue moving forward. – We have to keep our eyes on the prize.”

Reach Nomaan Merchant at [email protected]