WA schools catching up on Black history and ethnic studies

The state is following in the steps of more progressive states that have led the way on making history classes reflect our diverse country.

From top left, clockwise: Community members attend an informational session with Howard alumni at Black Voices’ HBCU event last year. (Curtis Campbell) Kellogg Middle School Assistant Principal Melyssa Stone. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut) Students attend a performance of Derrick Barnes’ book “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” put on by Book-It Repertory Theatre. (Curtis Campbell) Tanisha Brandon-Felder, director of equity and family engagement at Shoreline School District. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Washington state Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, doesn’t remember learning about Black history until the seventh grade. He recalls studying about slavery, but says most of the Black history he was taught “came in little pieces, it wasn’t that in-depth.” He wouldn’t really learn Black history until college at the University of Washington, where he majored in African American history.

Melyssa Stone, assistant principal at Shoreline Public Schools’  Kellogg Middle School, remembers learning about Martin Luther King Day and Rosa Parks in her social studies classes as a student. That was kind of it. “But I always went home to my mom who would hand me a book about another historical figure I didn’t know.”

It's been a decade or two since Johnson and Stone finished school, but a limited Eurocentric lens is still the dominant narrative in many social studies and U.S. history classrooms across the country. Some Western states like Oregon and California are leading the way in changing that and now Washington has started to follow its neighbors toward a more multicultural understanding of U.S. history.

Most of what is being taught currently in American schools focuses on what Jerry Price of the state education office calls “deficit-based history” that focuses on slavery and subjugation. The social studies teacher for 25 years, who is the program supervisor for social studies with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, says the problem with history textbooks and curriculum is not limited to Black history.  

Now there is momentum toward emphasizing how Black, Indigenous and people of color have contributed to the successes of this country and not just focus on their subjugation and struggle for equality. Such efforts date back to 1968 when a group of BIPOC students at San Francisco State University went on strike and demanded the school establish ethnic studies and Black studies departments. 

Since then, some schools across the country have offered ethnic studies and African American studies as electives, but it hasn’t been until the past five years that a handful of states have approved ethnic studies laws and policies in public education. In 2017, Oregon became the first state to require ethnic studies curriculum in K-12. The California State Board of Education adopted an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum this March, but unlike Oregon it is voluntary. 

Schools are rethinking how they teach the legacy of slavery too. Buffalo, Chicago and Washington, D.C., school districts are incorporating "The 1619 Project," a special edition of the New York Times Magazine published on Aug. 14, 2019, into their coursework.

State Rep. Jesse Johnson of the 30th Legislative District on April 21, 2021. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

State Rep. Jesse Johnson of the 30th Legislative District on April 21, 2021. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Signs of change in Washington

Washington is also moving toward including both ethnic studies and African American studies in the state’s public education curriculum.

In 2019 the state Legislature mandated OSPI create an Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee to identify and make available ethnic studies materials and resources for use in grades K-12. Although there is no statewide graduation requirement for schools to teach ethnic studies, Price says many of the larger districts in the Puget Sound region either offer it or are developing courses. Spokane Public Schools also offers an ethnic studies course.

Brooke Brown, Washington’s 2021 Teacher of the Year, helped build an ethnic studies class at Washington High School where she teaches in the Franklin Pierce School District, south of Tacoma. 

“I think ethnic studies is a gift,” she says, noting that it wasn’t until she took ethnic studies and African American studies in college that she gained a better understanding of her history and her experience as a biracial person. She credits this deeper understanding with helping her develop empathy and compassion. “You can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes until you understand what it’s like in your own,” Brown says. 

When describing what her students get from the class, she said, “it’s a way for them to see themselves, see each other and understand how the system works.”

Kellogg Middle School Assistant Principal Melyssa Stone on April 27, 2021. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Kellogg Middle School Assistant Principal Melyssa Stone on April 27, 2021. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Shaneé Washington, an assistant professor of justice and equity in teacher training at the University of Washington’s College of Education, says teachers and ethnic studies curriculums should not shy away from tough topics. These classes should include explicit conversations about systemic racism, white privilege, anti-Black racism and other historically marginalized groups. 

A common question she hears from students in her social studies education course is, “I teach kindergarten or first grade, isn’t it too early to have this conversation?” Her answer is an emphatic “No.” She points out that kids are already hearing about racism and hate crimes at home or seeing it on the news; they are so much more aware than we know. “It’s never too young. It’s all about thinking about an age-appropriate way to have these conversations without traumatizing the students,” she says.  

Brown also stresses the importance of learning about the past. “It’s helpful to teach all students about their history and the history of their classmates.” But she says the purpose should not be to feel shame about past atrocities, but rather to historicize them, so students can connect to one another in the present and reimagine a more equitable future.

This March, the Washington State Board of Education adopted an ethnic studies resolution. Although it is not policy and has no direct impact on the work of the advisory committee, OSPI’s Price says the resolution may help to “compel more districts to consider how to incorporate ethnic studies in their coursework.” 

The resolution notes that nearly half of all Washington public school students are Black, Indigenous or people of color and states that ethnic studies would benefit all students as it equips them to become “anti-racist participants in a multicultural society.” It recommends that ethnic studies be embedded in all courses throughout K-12, and that current and new teachers be trained to  teach the subject.

Board member Harium Martin-Morris, who is also a member of the Equity in Education Coalition, explains that the board’s student members’ raising of concerns about their history education led to the resolution. A panel of students from across the state shared similar frustrations and concerns with the board. Martin-Morris called Washington’s history curriculum “a great example of using public education to marginalize the contributions that people have made to the growth of this country.”

For Martin-Morris the resolution is a first step on the road to requiring ethnic studies statewide. He stresses the need to move carefully to ensure curriculum is age-appropriate and culturally appropriate, and also recognizes the need to “not add too much into the basket of all of the other things that are required.” Districts should be given the opportunity to weigh in on how they want to apply the curriculum, then start creating policies and procedures around ethnic studies in their own districts, he adds.  

Moving with intention is how Rep. Johnson describes the work of OSPI’s  African American Studies Workgroup. “We want to go slow to go fast,“ he said, emphasizing the need to be intentional in the process of developing curriculum. Being intentional includes engaging and building partnerships and trust with community partners, parents, teachers and students.

In addition to OSPI’s Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee, started in 2019, the Legislature in 2020 asked OSPI to establish an African American Studies Workgroup. But Johnson, the sponsor of that legislation, says parents had been calling on their local school boards to place more emphasis on Black history before the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in 2020.

In July, a workgroup of 21 Black educators and community members from across the state set out to develop recommendations for integrating African American history into existing social studies curriculum in grades 7-12, and to provide professional development for educators around the curriculum. The multidisciplinary curriculum would cover  topics including politics, culture, achievements and history and could be part of history classes but also math, science and other core subjects. They plan to also create a stand-alone African American studies class for 11th and 12th grades, as well as professional development for teachers..

Johnson is hopeful that investing in professional development will bring more Black educators to Washington, whose teacher workforce is currently 85% white.  He notes that “we’re always asked if we have a Black history curriculum … and we have to say no.” 

Tanisha Brandon-Felder, director of equity and family engagement at the Shoreline School District, on April 21, 2021. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Tanisha Brandon-Felder, director of equity and family engagement at the Shoreline School District, on April 21, 2021. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Shoreline’s Black Voices

In addition to curriculum changes, some Washington school districts are turning to community level programming to provide a fuller and more authentic interpretation of Black history and the Black experience. Dr. Tanisha Brandon-Felder, director of equity and family engagement for Shoreline Public Schools north of Seattle, wants to make sure that the atrocities of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation are not the only narrative students hear about in school. Not only is it harmful to their self-esteem, she argues, but it has an academic impact as well. “Why would they want to continue with school or want to graduate if they only think the outcome will be to further oppress them?” Brandon-Felder asked.

Stone, the assistant principal at Kellogg Middle School, adds that learning about history helps students tackle the larger concepts around identity. She notes that Black students, in particular, inherit generational trauma which resurfaced with the murder of George Floyd and many other Black men and women. Some kids are left wondering if death and injustice are all  they will inherit? 

Stone and Brandon-Felder joined together in 2019 to form the Shoreline program, Black Voices, a series of community events that provide an alternative narrative through identity affirmation and a focus on excellence in the Black experience. Stone imagined the program after attending a training by Zaretta Hammond, the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, in which she talked about tools to use in the classroom to connect with students. Stone wondered what it would look like to renarrate some of the messages kids are getting — or not getting — in class. 

During its first year, Black Voices centered around “tell us our stories.”  As Stone says, the program doesn’t shy away from talking about the hard things “but there’s so much more to explore and talk about through the lens of telling your own story or hearing from Black voices telling their own story.” 

A local Black author of young adult books gave a book reading and talked about how as an author she got to write the story she never saw herself in.  They organized a Black Books Fair and donated a portion of the proceeds toward putting the books featured in school libraries. Book-It Repertory Theater performed Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, an award-winning children’s book by Black author Derrick Barnes. And the program offered  an HBCU Night with alumni from historically Black colleges and universities such as Howard, Morehouse and Spelman.

The 2020-21 year is centered on “how to talk about race” in tribute to George Floyd and other Black victims of police brutality. Along with the book fair and HBCU Night, events have included a discussion of Black mental health and a fun-filled evening devoted to the film “Black Panther” and Afrofuturism. Most events take place in the evening and are open to the entire community. 

The program has successfully forged ahead during the pandemic, moving their events online and pulling in an average attendance of approximately 100. Although the program has been generally well received, Brandon-Felder says some people in the district have questioned its value. The district has grown more diverse over the years, since starting as a very white destination of former Seattle residents, with a current student population numbering more than 9,000 students that now is 51.5% white and 48.5% students of color, of which 8.3% are Black. In comparison, the student population in Seattle Public Schools is 45.7% white.  

Both Stone and Brandon-Felder emphasized that Black Voices should benefit everyone. “It’s not just for students of color. … It’s also for our white students to hear a different narrative and break stereotypes and stigmas,” says Brandon-Felder.

When asked if Black Voices has influenced the district’s curriculum offerings, she says, “it has started a conversation that I know was not there before,” and credits the program for informing the district’s recent ethnic studies efforts. In July 2020, the local school board passed an Ethnic Studies Resolution to guide the district in integrating ethnic studies.

For Stone, part of the power of Black Voices is that it gives affirmation to students that their stories and identities matter. It allows students to celebrate who they are, a goal that is ultimately at the heart of ethnic studies and African American studies.

About the Authors & Contributors

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Meg Butterworth

Meg Butterworth is a freelance writer and consultant who specializes in nonprofit development and communications.