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North Carolina School Board Rejects Mandatory African-American History Class

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After a North Carolina school board voted against a proposed African-American history class for high school students in October, activists continue their campaign for the classes as a requirement for graduation.

Despite a strong showing from supporters at the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education meeting, and the backing of a city council member, the board voted 7-1 against the African-American history classes last month.

“The superintendent has said to us, ‘Listen I don’t have the budget for another mandatory course. I don’t know the data that would support it. So as the leader of your district, I need you to allow me the time to figure out the data behind something that’s going to impact our children greatly.’ Because mandatory means that if a black kid doesn’t pass the course, God forbid, they will not graduate,” said board Chair Malisha Woodbury ahead of the vote. She also asked the board to continue supporting Superintendent Angela P. Hairston, the first African-American and second woman to serve as the county’s superintendent.

Superintendent Angela P. Hairston, hired in August 2019, put forth an alternative infusion program comprised of four elective courses in Ethnic Literature and  African American, Latin American and American Indian Studies.

“A lot of time we hear the language, ‘What about all children?’ but the fact of the matter is, not all children are failing the way African-American children are failing sitting in some of these schools,” said teacher activist Miranda Jones during an interview with Spectrum News. “And in fact, the way African-American kids are failing across the country.”

The state reports a drop in the number of failing schools in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County during 2018 – 2019. However, with eight low-performing schools, the district has the most failing schools in the state, and faces possible state control of these schools should academic performance continue to decline. 

Proponents of the required African-American history classes believe that Black students and are less motivated by a curriculum that does not reflect their history or cultural background. 

“So, it shows in the behavior, it shows in the attendance, it shows in the engagement in classes,” said Gary Robinson, an English teacher for North Forsyth High School.

The Winston-Salem Urban League reported in 2017 that “Forsyth County black third graders are approximately 60% less likely to read at grade level than white third graders. Regrettably, this disturbing trend carries forward to high school in English II where low testing performance continues. The data trends similarly for math.”

For now, the “Hate Out of Winston” activist group is advocating for the rejected courses on social media and canvassing neighborhoods to build public awareness. 

A change.org petition started by the group says that a mandatory African American history class would help promote equity and close the achievement gap among students.

If advocates are successful, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County would join a short list of public school districts with mandatory African-American history courses. To date, Los Angeles has a mandatory ethnic studies class, but Philadelphia and Bridgeport are the only city school boards that require students to take African-American history in order to graduate.

Cassandra Etienne is a freelance reporter and video journalist based in New Jersey. Her multimedia and documentary projects reflect an interest in cultural reporting, and in covering social issues such as civil rights, women's health, and education and healthcare reforms.