By Connor Kleinman
After the recent nationwide protests over inequality and police brutality, Sheyla Street was grateful that her classes in the Philadelphia School District included courses about African American history. But she worries that her peers in suburban districts may not have the same opportunity to learn about this important subject.
“If you don’t take African American history and you aren’t African American then you won’t understand why there are inequalities,” Street said. “History teaches why.”
In some districts in the Philadelphia region, teachers and administrators are looking to provide those learning opportunities. Lower Merion, a majority-white school district, is offering a course for the first time this semester in African American history. While courses like this are decades-old in other nearby districts, including Philadelphia, some students at Lower Merion are unsure how this new course should be taught.
But teachers say these courses are essential, because they will provide students with a greater understanding of African Americans.
In 2022, Lower Merion High School offered for the first time, a course called “Black Excellence: the Politics, Culture and Economics of an American People” as an elective that could be taken by students. According to Chad Henneberry, who teaches the course and is the head of the social studies department at Lower Merion High School, the course was made to allow students from every culture to learn more about African American history. The course focuses on the history of African Americans in areas such as politics, music, and business.
“Traditionally in the way that history classes are taught, topics that involve African American history and culture are addressed but not in the depth that would allow for better understanding,” Henneberry said. “[Black Excellence is] not just a course for African Americans to learn about their past.
“One goal of the course is to bring a greater awareness of Black excellence and accomplishments to the larger school community,” he added.
The superintendent of Lower Merion School District, Khalid Mumin, said that African American history is important to learn, because it’s part of American history.
He believes that having students learn about people who look like them is an important part of helping them build an identity. The importance of teaching African Americans about their history can inspire them, he said, to achieve great things, whereas the previous curriculum focused too heavily on white men.
Mumin stressed that we have made a lot of progress as a society, especially at Lower Merion, about recognizing African Americans and their achievements. However, he acknowledged that there is still a lot of work to be done.
Lower Merion’s course is just one example of a school district in our region making the teaching of African American history a priority for students. In the Philadelphia School District, for instance, African American history is a required course for all sophomores.
Social Studies Curriculum Specialist Ismael Jimenez helped develop the district’s course, which was one of the first African American history courses in the country.
The Philadelphia course was created in 1967, after more than 3,500 students walked out of class in protest, demanding Black history be taught, according to Jimenez. Because that course was so successful over the years, in 2005, the district made it a mandatory part of the curriculum.
“The course has for the most part led to an increase of student involvement in local communities,” Jimenez said. “I personally saw students become better people, of all races.”.
Jimenez believes that other districts can use the course as an inspiration to revise their own curriculum to make necessary changes to the way history is taught.
Students taking the courses are sometimes split in their opinions on them. Some, such as Luke Lachenmeyer, a sophomore at Lower Merion, believe the course should be integrated into the main history curriculum, and shouldn’t be offered as an elective.
“I would rather have integration than a separate course,” Lachenmeyer said. “I view it as segregation.”
Instead, he believes, the courses are better left together, because students would benefit from a more inclusive course that represents all of our country’s history, rather than highlighting one portion of it.
“It could be human nature,” Lachenmeyer said. “People are naturally more comfortable with people who look like them and think like them.”
Lachenemeyer wondered if providing better outreach to students who aren’t people of color would increase interest in learning about African American history.
But others, like Street, say that these courses are a form of outreach. She said courses in African American history “[are] good for all students; the truth will set everyone free, not just Black people.”
“So it could be that other people who don’t identify as Black might feel hesitant about taking a course because they feel that it doesn’t impact them,” Street said. “Not admitting faults can lead to stagnation and conflict.”