The vote by the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board to reject a mandatory black studies class in October presents advocates for African-American studies with a dilemma.
After two years of lobbying, a coalition led by Hate Out of Winston and the Local Organizing Committee saw all but one member of the school board vote against the mandatory black studies class on Oct. 22. Instead, the board backed a proposal by Superintendent Angela Hairston to enhance something called the “K-12 Cultural Infusion Project.” Leaders of the Winston-Salem NAACP and Action4Equity Coalition spoke in favor of the superintendent’s plan. In the fallout, the two factions of black-led education advocacy have erupted in mutual recrimination on Facebook.
While leaders of Hate Out of Winston have insisted they’ll keep fighting for a mandatory black studies class, Action4Equity and the Young Adult Committee of the Winston-Salem NAACP hosted a forum at First Baptist Church on Highland Avenue on Nov. 21 to talk about how to mobilize the community to strengthen African-American studies through the infusion program.
Community leaders had the opportunity to direct questions at Rebecca McKnight, who shepherds the infusion program as the K-12 social studies director for the school district, and Willette Nash, who launched the program 27 years ago.
“One thing that I think is important is to separate — just for a second — the infusion from the mandatory course, because there is absolutely no reason why those two things should not live together in harmony,” McKnight said.
“I strongly believe that it is too late to have a course in high school and to really not have conversations with all children, not just African-American, before they get to their sophomore or their junior year, and then everybody has to take this course about African-American history. That is too late if we are trying to improve how people view others and how people view themselves.”
McKnight was echoing a concern previously voiced by school board Chair Malishai Woodbury that without exposure to African-American studies throughout elementary and middle school, requiring a black studies course for graduation would be setting up black students in particular for failure.
But considering that the infusion project has been in place since 1993, why don’t the students already have the foundation they need for a mandatory high school-level course?
In essence, the gap lies in the fact that teachers aren’t required to incorporate African-American history into their lesson plans, as the infusion program asks them to do.
“African-American history is American history,” McKnight said. “And so, what we say to teachers is: ‘If you’re talking about the Civil War, rather than use this primary source, use this one that has an African-American perspective. You’re talking about the same event. The Civil War happened, but the perspective on it is different depending on who it happened to.’ Teachers have tried to say, ‘This is too much.’ It’s not too much. You’re going to have to make some choices. We want you to choose these African-American sources sometimes rather than these more — I hate to use the word ‘traditional’ — but you know, more Euro-centric documents to teach the same thing.”
Nash said teachers need to be held accountable for implementation of the infusion program.
“Teachers are going to have to be evaluated,” she said, “and it will have to now be a condition for continued employment.”
While the school board turned down the request for mandatory black studies, Superintendent Hairston’s proposal to enhance the infusion project includes a provision to ensure that African American Studies, Latin American Studies and American Indian Studies are offered at all traditional high schools.
Currently, students at predominantly white high schools are the biggest beneficiaries of the black studies program.
One teacher who attended the forum recalled an instance a couple years ago when there weren’t enough students at Carver High School — the school with the highest black population — for the administration to justify offering African-American Studies. Asked which schools are currently offering African American Studies, McKnight mentioned Reagan High School, West Forsyth High School and North Forsyth High School. Reagan and West Forsyth each have black student populations of less than 12 percent.
McKnight reiterated Hairston’s pledge that going forward every traditional high school in the district will offer African American Studies, Latin American Studies and American Indian Studies.
“To do that, we need to make sure the kids know that the classes are possible, and that it’s not about whether enough kids sign up,” McKnight said. “Dr. Hairston has also said that if eight kids sign up for a class at a school — in the past, traditionally, that means the class won’t be on the schedule. She has said that if we get eight students sign up for the class, then we as a school system and as a school building need to figure out how to make that happen.”
When asked how long it will take Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools to implement a mandatory black studies class, she cited the example of Philadelphia.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a two-year process,” she said. “When I think about Philadelphia, it took a 40-year process for them to get the mandatory African-American history course to be put in place. Now, do I think 40 years? We don’t have time for that.”