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Philly Requiring Black History Course for High-Schoolers

Philly Requiring Black History Course for High-Schoolers
Graduation requirement has been 30 years in the making

By Marlon A. Walker

The board governing Philadelphia’s schools decided a lesson on Black history was needed — for everybody. In February 2005, the city’s School Reform Commission voted unanimously to approve a Black history course as a required class for high school students. To SRC Commissioner Sandra Dungee Glenn, it means most of the city’s public high school students will finally get to know where they came from.

“It’s overdue.” she says. “This is really the culmination of something that started over 30 years ago by students around 1968-69 when the district began to be a majority African-American district. The curriculum [at the time] didn’t reflect the work of people of African-American descent.”

She was referring to moves by students in the late 1960s to add Black history to the district’s curriculum. Dungee Glenn says courses had popped up in various schools over time as electives, but nothing was districtwide until now. The course includes units on African-American history and some on African history, she says.

“I think it’s relevant for [Black] students, knowing who they are and where they come from,” she says. “We can’t talk about history without having an understanding of Black history.”

According to the city’s education officials, students who started the 2005-2006 school year as freshmen must take the required history elective. Any other students, such as those who were in high school last year, are exempt from the mandate, but may take the class to fulfill one of their five credits of elective coursework needed to graduate.

But not everybody was happy with the move, Dungee Glenn says.

“Some said they didn’t like that it was mandatory,” she says. “I think it has been very well received this year.”

Dungee Glenn says there were talks to increase the focus on Black history in other relevant courses, such as American history. But she felt an added emphasis was not enough.

“I didn’t think it was sufficient to infuse it there,” she says. “I thought it was important to have a standalone course.”

The new rule is the result of pressure from several factions.
In 2002, Philadelphia introduced the five-member School Reform Commission, made up of two members appointed by the mayor and three by the governor. The SRC’s mission was to help revitalize the low-performing schools in the district.

“A number of factors were operating at the same time to bring [the Black history class] forward,” Dungee Glenn says. “We’ve revamped our entire district. People thought there was now an opportunity for new willing gears to take this and move forward.”

With a school district of 185,000 students — nearly two-thirds of which are Black — teachers like Ty Ross say this move should’ve been done a long time ago.

“They should’ve had it anyway,” says Ross, a substitute teacher. “I’m sure they learn about Frederick Douglass [in other classes], but there are many people that are missed in texts. I do think it’s good that these kids learn something about their own culture’s history.”

There have been complaints that while the course teaches Black students about their culture, it ignores the cultures of other students. But Dungee Glenn says the overall response has been very positive.

Students such as Kimyattia Ryans, 17, a senior at West Philadelphia High School, welcome the curriculum additions. She says people need to get a better grasp of their heritage and roots.

“I feel that it should be required,” she says. “Without it, kids wouldn’t know anything that has to do with their history. The only other way to talk about it was in English and other classes like that.

“We need history. I may be different because history is my favorite subject. I feel as though if we have history, we’ll know about the times before us. If I were a freshman, I wouldn’t have a problem taking the class — and passing it,” Ryans says.

Dungee Glenn says the possibility of requiring Latino or Asian history classes has been discussed. She says those classes may come, but that the Black history classes were a long time coming.

“I think with policies, it’s hard to say. As the district evolves, the courses have to evolve with them. I think [the classes] will be a very positive component. It is not a be-all and end-all, but I think it’s an important component. The environment that our young people are preparing for is constantly evolving,” says Dungee Glenn. “We really need to update what we’re doing to meet the needs of our children.”

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