Local activists say CPS is not teaching enough black history to students

February 5, 2013

(By Benedictine University/Flickr)
St. Procopius College Black Student Association, 1971

Some local leaders are concerned about the lack of African-American history education in Chicago Public Schools. Mattie Butler runs a community organization called Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors.

She said CPS hasn’t ensured that its schools offer students enough education about black history or literature.

“For us, it’s been an ongoing struggle, an uphill battle,” Butler said. “Now, I have a grandson in one of the schools here and when I look at the homework, there is nothing there that talks about him as a black child.”

Butler runs an after-school program and said students who don’t know much about their culture face difficulties.

“They don’t have a sense of self, of worth,” she said. “They don't have a sense of place. They don't have a sense of pride in who they are.”

State Rep. Mary Flowers sponsored a law 22 years ago mandating that all public schools in Illinois should teach African-American history.

"It's important that all students become educated," Flowers said. "It's a requirement for the state of Illinois - is the law - so is not something that a school has an option to do."

Flowers said the Illinois Board of Education should be monitoring and making sure that all schools are in compliance. But the problem, she said, is there are no penalties if school districts don’t comply.

According to the current law, “Every public elementary school and high school shall include in its curriculum a unit of instruction studying the events of Black history.”

But Mary Fergus, the spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said that unit of instruction “typically has been interpreted to mean that the instruction is embedded in another course.”

She says it’s up to each district to decide how much time it will spend teaching the subject.

It’s not clear what the policy is at Chicago Public Schools. The district did not answer questions about how and when it teaches black history or literature.

But according to Jones College Prep High School Principal Joseph Powers, there isn't a specific mandate from CPS about what courses a school should offer.

“What we’ve done here was develop courses that we felt will meet that particular requirement from the state and also fulfill an educational need for our students,” Powers said.

Jones College Prep made the news recently when students learned the school was removing African American Literature and Latin American Studies classes from its curriculum.

Students collected more than 700 petitions asking CPS to keep the classes. Jones has reinstated the classes, blaming a computer error for the planned cancellations.

The complaints by the Woodlawn group, along with the petitions filed over Jones College Prep, drew new attention to the issue.

In response, CPS Press Secretary Marielle Sainvilus said in a statement: "African American history is a vital component of the culture and fabric of both our country and our city. Integrating these very important teachings into our classrooms is a priority for CEO Byrd Bennett and she is working on a plan to address this...”

In the meantime, Butler and other Woodlawn activists said they will continue to challenge their local schools to teach more about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.

“I am gonna be pushing to see that Afro-centric teaching is in each and every school that there is an African-American child,” Butler said.