The 2011 Southern Poverty Law Center education report graded the states on what they require public schools to teach about a nation-changing era—the Civil Rights Movement. Thirty-five states flunked.
After the report, titled “Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education 2011,” revealed the state of civil rights education, only one college contacted the author. That college—located in a state that received an F—is a small liberal arts institution in an isolated region of southeastern Washington, best known for growing sweet onions and having scores of wineries.
The upshot of the email exchange and follow-up phone conversations is a pioneering educational program that Whitman College launched with the local school district in Walla Walla, Wash. This February marked the third time that Whitman students volunteered in Walla Walla classrooms to teach the next generation about such historic episodes as the student sit-ins at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham, Ala., jail.
“Whitman was the only college that reached out in a very proactive way to say we are going to try to take the lessons in the report and try to find a way to practically apply them to make a difference in our community,” says Dr. Kate Shuster, the report’s author. “In that respect, I think they’re highly unusual.”
The “Teaching the Movement” report was published in September. Noah Leavitt, assistant dean for student engagement at Whitman, contacted Shuster in November. By January 2012, Whitman students were teaching civil rights lessons to Walla Walla students, relatively quick for ramping up a new program at a college.
“All that came together fairly quickly,” says Leavitt. “It seemed like doing something with the public school district would offer the chance for students in town to learn about the movement in a fun way, for our students to learn about it and for our students to have the chance to be off-campus out in the community.”
The Walla Walla school district considers the groundbreaking program “a successful partnership,” says Dr. Linda Boggs, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment.
“The project was a match for several reasons,” Boggs explains. “The concepts taught in grades two, five, seven, and high school are part of our standard curriculum; teachers often invite outside guests to speak to [their] class [to] add perspective, and having college-age students interacting with our K-12 students is a way to introduce the ‘concept of college.’”
The project, called Whitman Teaches the Movement, is being expanded this year. In late January, Whitman students provided lessons to students in a second district, Dayton, in an adjoining county.
Leavitt is making plans for additional educational programs about the Latino farmworker movement around César Chávez Day in March. More than a third of Walla Walla’s 6,000 students are Latinos, the district’s largest racial-ethnic minority.
Both Leavitt and Shuster are hoping Whitman’s model inspires similar partnerships between colleges and school districts around the country.
In late January, representatives from 10 colleges in the Pacific Northwest attended an information session that Whitman hosted. Leavitt says all expressed interest in replicating the WTTM model on their campuses, including the University of Washington, a regional heavyweight, and Reed College, a noted liberal arts college in Oregon.
Shuster, who is working on an updated report on civil rights education for the Southern Poverty Law Center, has spotted evidence that some states are getting the message. She cites as examples Oklahoma, whose new history standards do “an exceptional job” on the movement, she says; and Utah, which offered broader professional development on teaching about equity and social change.
The progress in those Western states with small Black populations deviates from the regional patterns Shuster documented in the 2011 report.
“The grades tend to go down the farther away you go from the South. Also, grades tend to be lower in places where there are fewer African-American students,” Shuster says. “I think we can fairly deduce from that the sense [that] there are certainly some places where the movement may be seen as more regional history or African-American history.”
The report compared state curriculum standards with the “minimum core content” on the Civil Rights Movement that experts recommended to the Southern Poverty Law Center. For example, teaching about King and Rosa Parks was required, along with six other movement leaders of the state’s choice. The report did not assess whether some districts, like Walla Walla’s, went beyond state standards and provided additional lessons about the era.
Of the three states to receive an A, two were in the South: Alabama and Florida. New York was the other. Two of three states to earn a B were also Southern: Georgia and South Carolina, joined by Illinois.
Teaching the past
Many resources are readily available for other states to do a better job teaching the movement’s history.
That’s one reason the Whitman-Walla Walla project was able to get underway so quickly. From a book on her shelf, Shuster pulled one lesson plan. Designed for seventh-graders, it explores the role of women in the movement.
Shuster developed two other lessons from a picture book or a teacher’s guide—one for second-graders about Jackie Robinson integrating Major League Baseball and another on the Greensboro sit-ins for fifth-graders.
The 11th-grade lesson on King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was a product of
Shuster’s own work. This year, Walla Walla teachers revised that lesson plan to make it more interactive.
Students at both Whitman and Walla Walla say they have gained new knowledge.
“When I first heard the civil rights lesson, it amazed me to learn of the risks people were willing to take to be considered equal,” says Maria Arceo, a senior at Walla Walla High School. “What I took out of this lesson is that there is a cost to freedom, but it was a cost worth paying.”
Before coordinating the program last year, Sophie Schouboe, who will graduate in 2015, taught second-graders in 2012.
“I didn’t know much about the Greensboro sit-ins. I knew about sit-ins in general,” Schouboe says. “So it was a learning experience for me, too.”
Learning factual information is only part of the project’s purpose. Both Leavitt and Shuster say the goal is for Whitman and local students to glean broader lessons as well.
“The reality is our students are going to go out and participate in a professional environment that’s going to be a whole lot more diverse than what they have here on campus,” says Leavitt. “We need to recognize that and help them understand how to make the most of that. That’s part of our educational mission.”
Of Whitman’s 1,500 students, 72 percent are White, 8 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian-Pacific Islander and 1 percent Black. The rest are mixed race or international or do not specify their race.
Shuster calls the Whitman project “a small, powerful example of community outreach [that] can be constructed in a way that targets important learning—not just about content, but the possibilities of citizenship [and] what it means to be an engaged member of a community.”
The lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, says Shuster, on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center, are one for college and K-12 students throughout the country.
“We feel strongly that it’s not Black history; it’s American history,” she says. “It is one of the most important eras of American history.”