Yale Daily News

In the midst of a nationwide debate regarding how teachers are permitted to teach about race in K-12 schools, Connecticut has become the first state to require that public high schools offer an elective African American and Latinx studies combined course.

Starting next fall, Connecticut public high schools will be required to offer the elective courses. Beginning in the 2023-24 school year, schools will also be required to include Native American studies in their social studies curricula. The requirement for schools to offer the elective course was signed by Governor Ned Lamont in June 2019 and the Connecticut State Board of Education unanimously approved its curriculum last December. New Haven area organizations and one Yale professor have played a significant role in the courses’ creation and implementation.

“Who’s going to tell our history?” said Addys Castillo, executive director of the Citywide Youth Coalition (CWYC). “Are our grandchildren going to be talking about folks that they never met or are they going to be talking about the she-roes and heroes there right now?”

CWYC, a grassroots New Haven organization that advocates for youth voices, was one of many organizations that pushed for the Black and Latinx studies requirement. Castillo said that CWYC students, in tandem with groups affiliated with the Black and Brown Student Union, a group of youth and adult organizers in Connecticut committed to youth justice, showed up to testify for the legislation in March 2019.

After the bill passed the state legislature, students continued to show support for the course, sending letters to legislators to express their enthusiasm. 

“Young people are at the forefront of change,” Castillo said. “Adults will follow behind.”

Castillo explained that the original plan for the Black and Latinx studies requirement was to offer two courses — one for Black studies and the other for Latinx studies — instead of one combined course. Legislators were concerned that the two courses would not pass, so they combined them into one, Castillo said. When students and educators suggested edits to the legislation, Castillo said none were implemented.

“It would mean adding an entire level of critical race theory and the legislators weren’t ready for that,” Castillo said about the benefit of having two courses. “I think it’s still missing that portion, to be honest.” 

The state’s approved curriculum for the new elective teaches Black history in one semester and Latinx history in another. The first semester is divided into six units, which include topics such as the social construction of race, the struggle against Jim Crow and the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. The second semester is divided into five units, which include topics such as the diversity of Latino cultures, the suppression of Indigenous languages in the Americas and the legacy of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico.

Castillo added that the CWYC’s work was modeled after an organization based in Seattle called Ending the Prison Industrial Complex, or EPIC. She further emphasized that while local organizers have been promoting the courses for their communities, the push for equitable education is a national priority.

According to Chalkbeat, a premier education news outlet, 28 states have seen political efforts to “restrict education on racism, bias, the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history or related topics.” For example, this past summer Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law that banned the teaching of the New York Times’ 1619 project and prohibits students from getting school credit for participation in civic engagement activities. Proponents in the state legislature said that some Texas teachers were distorting the United States’ founding before the law’s passage. The education outlet tracked 15 states, including Connecticut, that have seen efforts to expand education on racism, bias and minority contributions to U.S. history.

In Connecticut, a small number of “ban critical race theory” signs have appeared in wealthier suburbs, and some parents have decried anti-racist education at their local school boards. 

Implementing ethnic studies

Shortly after the state legislature approved the Black and Latinx studies elective course in June 2019, Connecticut educators and community members formed the Anti Racist Teaching & Learning Collective (ARTLC).

Nataliya Braginsky, a social studies teacher at the Metropolitan Business Academy, is a part of ARTLC’s steering committee. In an interview with the News, she said that throughout her K-12 education, she was taught the “dominant, Eurocentric” version of history, which included reading literature predominantly written by white people. She said that this kind of education leaves out “a huge part of the story.”

Today, Braginsky has worked with ARTLC to help teachers implement narratives from marginalized communities in their curricula.

“I think it’s also about not just what we teach, it’s also about how we write,” Braginsky said. “And there are so many pedagogical practices that promote education as a form of liberation, rather than education as a … model in which students are the active recipients of information from some kind of all knowing expert.”

Braginsky recently won the 2021 National History Teacher of the Year award, and part of the strategy to her success is asking her students what they want to learn, she said. “One of their biggest pieces of feedback is that they don’t want to learn the same things over and over again, they want new narratives,” she explained. Braginsky also said she aims to balance histories of oppression and domination with stories of resistance and collective struggle.

“I really tried to focus my curriculum on movement rather than [the] individual, because that’s how I think history is actually made, and too often I think it’s taught as sort of the story of individual heroes, rather than collective struggles, which is how change happens.”

Members of the Yale community have been involved in the push for the implementation of the course. Daniel HoSang, associate professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Race and Migration, is a member of ARTLC’s steering committee. Through the Yale New Haven Teaching Initiative, HoSang has taught 13-week long seminars informing local teachers on anti-racist pedagogy and strategies.

“I’ve certainly learned a lot from them about pedagogy, about the challenges they face and trying to adapt and innovate in their curriculum,” HoSang said.

HoSang also emphasized the efforts Yale students have made, citing student interns working with ARTLC in developing the organization’s website and sending out weekly newsletters. The student interns have also worked with other youth activist groups.

HoSang agreed with Castillo that the legislation is limited in certain ways. Due to the pandemic, public engagement within the advisory group overseeing the legislation through the State Education Research Center was limited. The advisory group was made up of nine committees that oversaw the creation of the course, from development of the course syllabus to the implementation of the course itself.

“The actual content was done by a small number of people,” HoSang noted. “We think there was an error in not really allowing teachers and students to help shape the process more.”

Anticipating future challenges, HoSang expects a “learning period” in the implementation of the courses. He mentioned that varying levels of confidence and attitudes toward teaching the courses will add to those challenges.

Public Act 19-12 — the act concerning the inclusion of Black and Latinx studies in public school curriculum — took effect on July 1, 2021.

CHRISTIAN ROBLES
Christian Robles covers education & youth services. He is a sophomore in Davenport College studying Political Science and Economics.
JABEZ CHOI
PIA BALDWIN EDWARDS