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Black lawmakers seek to reform history curriculum for Illinois schools

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus continue to push for education reform to lift up students who have been left out. One of their key goals is introducing a new statewide curriculum focused on Black history.

Illinois students have to learn about the Constitution and the foundation of the country. However, many don’t have an opportunity to learn about Black contributions to society until college. Lawmakers want to revise content for schools to ensure books and classroom discussions show more than oppression for Black people.

“Illustration is really important, themes are important. More importantly to me is just telling the truth,” said Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford. “You don’t have to try to fix it, you don’t have to try to make it something pretty. Just tell the truth.”

Chicago Public Schools already teach specific units highlighting marginalized voices to empower students.

“The small side view of this is to make sure that young people in their classrooms are understanding Blackness beyond slavery and really understanding Black people’s contribution to America from its foundation and beyond,” said Dr. Maurice Swinney, CPS Chief Equity Officer.

Swinney mentioned the district is still trying to answer how to teach about Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ history throughout the curriculum instead of just one unit or a month of celebration. An expert from Georgia State University emphasized students need social-emotional learning and identity development early into schooling.

“Our students should not have to wait until adulthood to have a confidence and a refuge of self. Identity deserves a space in K-12 learning,” explained Dr. Gholdy Muhammad.

Understanding cultures

A bill filed in February calls for complete and accurate Black history education for all students. Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) is the lead sponsor of that plan. He also happens to be a former social studies teacher. Ford feels racial tension is created when young people don’t learn and understand one another.

“Teachers, when we go to school, I think we go to school to become better people and to be more informed,” Ford said. “That’s not what our history is doing. Our history is not teaching us to be better informed and how to be more accepting.”

Advocates and lawmakers believe this could be critical for students since many older history books demonize and stereotype identities of Black and Brown Americans.

“They don’t meet the needs of society and they fail at making sure that we have a society that is respectful and knowledgeable about our brothers and sisters,” Ford added.

Several participants in Wednesday’s hearing noted people are too comfortable with whiteness and Eurocentricity. Experts feel teachers and students learn the most when they’re uncomfortable with new content. Muhammad feels lawmakers need to set a standard for teachers and professional development groups.

“We have to change the state’s standards and make it mandatory because then you start to change recruitment and interview protocols of what it takes to be a teacher here. You have to be ready to teach within this model,” said Muhammad.