High school junior Sariah Mason says she feels like something has been missing from her social studies classes.
“It’s been the same thing over and over again, and nothing really that I was interested in, which is basically the history before slavery,” Mason said.
As an African American student, Mason said she wants to know more about her people’s past, including the history of the African continent. She also wants a more complete look at African Americans and their accomplishments than she feels like she’s received so far. Mason said she researches this history on her own time, but sometimes that can be difficult, and she doesn’t always find the answers she’s looking for.
“I realize how it affects me and my mental state. How I don’t really know anything about my history, my ancestors, how they lived,” Mason said. “I don’t want no other African American student to actually go through that.”
Mason, along with a group of JCPS students at Marion C. Moore High School, is advocating for statewide social studies standards that cover the history of minority groups. To that end, she emailed Democratic State Representative Attica Scott of Louisville, urging her to write a bill that would broaden the scope of African American history in Kentucky’s public school standards.
“I was amazed students, especially high school students, reached out to their state representatives and said ‘this is important to us and we would like you to address this with legislation,” Scott said.
Scott is the only black woman in the Kentucky General Assembly. She agreed that the students’ request was important. She spoke with them and began to draft a bill.
“My first step was to reach out to my colleagues, and then my next was to work with the Legislative Research Commission to find out what other states have done this, and what has their legislation looked like,” Scott said.
The bill would require instruction in African and Native American history in certain classes and require the Kentucky Department of Education to develop guidelines for elective courses in African and Native American studies.
A handful of states have passed similar laws. This past summer, a bill supported by students to require African American and Latin American studies became law in Connecticut, with unanimous support in that state’s senate. The JCPS students’ bill may face a steeper challenge. Scott is currently the only sponsor on the pre-filed bill, and as a Democrat, she’s in the minority party in the Kentucky General Assembly.
“I’m hoping that the bill will at least have a chance to be heard, and I know that that’s a big challenge in the current legislative dynamic that we have,” Scott said. The students say they hope to be able to testify before a legislative committee about why the bill matters to them.
New State Standards
Another obstacle to the bill is that Kentucky recently adopted new state standards for social studies instruction, and they do provide more breadth of coverage of minority groups. Ryan New is a social studies instructional coach at JCPS who also served on the committee that wrote the new statewide standards.
“In July, this past year, a new set of standards were adopted, that provide a lot more room than has ever been provided before, to make all voices of every person who’s lived on this planet be heard,” New said.
He said the updated standards are based more on getting students to ask questions and think critically — and to participate in their own education.
“Students need to be studying the history of the very groups that they’re they see every day, or that they’re a part of,” New said.
JCPS’ new racial equity policy called on the district’s social studies instructional coaches to recommend curriculum for elective African American studies classes that would be offered at several high schools. The committee went to black student unions for advice on what they wanted to learn.
New also notes that under the updated state standards, social studies teachers across JCPS have about 50 days for flexible instruction, beyond time dedicated to covering state standards, that they could specifically use to cover additional topics their students care about.
New remembers how important it was to consider his students’ input when he was a teacher in Boyle County, Kentucky.
“I had a student who was Navajo and came up and said, ‘Where are my people in your curriculum?’” New said. “Now, I don’t want that to be upon the onus of the student, right? We can’t just sit back and allow students to be the ones pointing out the errors in our craft.”
A Diverse Curriculum
Sariah Mason’s friends at Marion C. Moore School say they have lots of ideas on what history they want to cover.
Carson Osterboudt would like to learn more about LGBTQ history. “Being a lesbian myself, I know practically nothing about my history,” Osterhoudt said. “[T]hat’s something personal that I face.”
Student Josue Amando Velasquez is part Puerto Rican. “Nowhere in the history books do you see anything about Puerto Rico’s history,” he said. “I mean it’s supposed to be our territory, am I right?”
“I truly just think that slavery isn’t a part of African history, it’s a disruption in it,” said Olivia Benford, as her classmates snapped their fingers in agreement. “There is a whole entire history behind what we have been conditioned to learn.”
The students say they plan to write to representative Scott to ask her to broaden the bill to cover the history of LatinX and LGBTQ people. Scott said she would welcome input that will help the bill to evolve as it moves through the legislative process.
But the students say whether or not the bill moves forward, they will continue to call for these topics to be discussed in their classrooms. Their advice to teachers is to involve students in deciding what to cover based on what they’re excited about.
“Honestly, every student has a spark in them, but you just need to be the one to make it be an explosion,” Mason said.
The bill she and her classmates helped write may be heard in the Kentucky General Assembly during the upcoming 2020 legislative session.