WATERBURY, Conn. — School districts are planning to implement a law passed this year mandating schools statewide offer African-American, Latino and Puerto Rican-focused courses.
Waterbury is ahead of surrounding districts, as the city has already had a variety of similar courses both inside the classroom and out.
The law in its final form called for the state Board of Education to approve a model curriculum developed by the State Educational Resource Center for districts to follow by January 2021.
The law requires districts have courses ready to be offered by the 2022-23 school year but allows them to begin offering it the year before that. The course will not be required for graduation but will be worth one credit.
State Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, said the law which passed the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Ned Lamont was ultimately a compromise. Sampson says he would have voted against the law, which passed the state senate unanimously, had it required the courses be taken by students for them to graduate.
"You're telling teachers they don't know how to do their jobs," Sampson said of such a measure.
Sampson cast doubt on the courses gaining popularity in less diverse towns like Wolcott.
"Of course it's going to get more play in urban districts," Sampson said.
Sampson said he thought the education he received on the history of race and racism when he went to high school was "thorough," saying he remembers learning about slavery and the civil rights movement. Sampson went to public schools in Meriden where he grew up and graduated from Maloney High School.
Warren Leach, of the community group the Ungroup Society, said the teaching of just those two facets of black history can be a problem, especially for black students.
"Black children are taught that their origin is to be dragged away," Leach said. "When they're taught that they're diminished . . . how do you expect them to achieve greatness?"
Leach and the Ungroup Society, a community group that tries to address the city's issues without the divisiveness of politics, ran classes at the Wow NRZ Community Learning Center and Waterbury Opportunities Industrialization Center earlier this year which taught African-American history, financial literacy and young entrepreneurship for students age 12 and up.
The group is in the middle of a major update to the curriculum of its classes. Leach said it is more important for white students to take classes like those the Ungroup taught, saying they should "look for as many perspectives as possible" when it comes to history.
At John F. Kennedy High School, Jahana Hayes taught African-American history before her run for Congress. Since her election and her departure from the school system, the course has struggled to get enough students to sign up for it every semester.
"After freshman year it kind of disappeared," Heidi Atuaful, a senior at Kennedy, said of the class's dissipation.
Wilby High School has seen expansion of its African-American history courses in recent years. Cazzie Iverson teaches the course and has done so for the past 20 years. The course used to be an elective that upperclassmen could take. Now it can count toward a student's general history credits required for graduation, so Iverson has a few freshmen in his classes.
Iverson said he tries to teach the class in a way that students are surprised by what they learn. Iverson likes to talk about some of the inventions generated by African-Americans which students might not know about, including the golf tee, the traffic light and George Washington Carver's groundbreaking work with peanuts.
"A lot of kids thought Frederick Douglass was Martin Luther King Jr.," Iverson said. "When I was in high school I kind of knew about these people but not in depth, but now with kids you have to introduce them to the person and then go in depth."
Wayne Shuhi, a member of the Litchfield Board of Education, says the board hasn't discussed implementation of the law but thinks the classes it will be beneficial.
"My personal feeling is the more information that we share and the more history that we make available in our schools the better," Shuhi said. "I felt i got a well-rounded education . . . as I got older the more I learned, I did realize Litchfield is it's a great place to grow up but there's more stuff going on than you might run into in your own little town."
Wolcott Superintendent Tony Gasper said he wouldn't be surprised if there is a lot of interest for the course in his district. Gasper is in Wolcott after stints spent working in more diverse districts like East Hartford, Manchester and Windham.
"This is my 23rd year in the profession and I find kids to be more accepting as I get older," Gasper said.
Dwaye Boucaud, who has two children at Cheshire High School, submitted written testimony to the General Assembly's Education Committee when the Assembly was considering the law earlier in the year. Boucaud noted the death of Cheshire student Anjelita Estrada by suicide in December of last year. Her parents say she was bullied for being Hispanic before her death.
Boucaud mentioned Estrada's death as a reason why there needs to be more education about race and racism in schools. He acknowledged it would be ifficult for the mostly-white faculty of Cheshire schools to teach the subject but said it's not impossible for them.
"For someone who hasn't had the lived experience . . . it's going to be a little bit harder to teach, but it's something you can be trained to do if you take it seriously," Boucaud said.