The city’s school system is ahead of other New Jersey school districts in infusing African-American history into its social studies curriculum, according to documents reviewed by a member of the New Jersey Amistad Commission.
“It looks good on paper,” said James Harris, a member of the New Jersey Amistad Commission, who reviewed the district’s curriculum at the request of the Paterson Times. “Paterson is ahead of the crowd.”
The district’s curriculum requires teachers to cover the role of blacks in the different periods of American history. For example, students in the eighth grade are required to learn about Prince Easterbrooks, who was the first person shot at Concord Bridge. He survived and went on to fight in nearly every major campaign of the American Revolution. Similarly, high school students learn about black medical pioneer Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the second documented pericardium surgery in the U.S.
“It’s obvious Paterson had made a gallant attempt for infusion district wide,” said Stephanie Wilson, executive director for the New Jersey Amistad Commission, in a statement. She had lingering questions: What do lesson plans look like? How are the resources used daily not just their availability? What questions are asked of teachers in observations? How does the district oversee daily classroom implementation?
Harris cautioned having it on paper does not necessarily mean it is being put into practice. Some community leaders have questioned whether students are being taught what appears in the curriculum documents.
“When I talk to my grandkids, they don’t know anything about the Amistad. They say it’s not being taught,” said Linda Reid, president of the Parent Education Organizing Council (PEOC), whose eight grandchildren attend district schools.
Community activist Casey Melvin, whose three children attend district schools, concurred with Reid. “They can’t really identify with the academics,” said Melvin speaking of black students. “That connection has not been made for a long time.”
Both Melvin and Reid are part of the Paterson Amistad Committee formed by school board member Emanuel Capers.
District officials said the curriculum is being taught in classrooms. Teachers have to teach the content in the curriculum because the materials later appear on the unit assessments.
“It is part of the curriculum and it is happening,” said superintendent Eileen Shafer. “If we have people in the community and in the schools saying something to the contrary, we need to look into it. And that’s what we’ll do.”
The Amistad piece of learning is infused throughout the elementary and high school curricula. Teachers do not pause during lessons to explain that the material being taught is part of Amistad.
“It’s something that’s not so explicit,” said deputy superintendent Susana Peron.
Harris said children do not know the New Jersey Amistad legislation which calls on schools to cover the history of the African slave trade, slavery in America, the triumphs of African-Americans, and their contribution to the development of the United States.
To find out whether the material in the curriculum is being taught to their children, parents have to ask penetrating questions about specific content. “That’s when the rubber meets the road,” said Harris. “I get nervous when people say they talked about something and the kids don’t remember hearing it.”
The commission sees very few instructors from Paterson schools attending its Summer Institute for Teachers. Over the past decade, the district has sent social studies teachers, who were tasked to turnkey training upon return. For example, since 2008, five staff members received Amistad training on the infusion of African-American history into lessons, according to a district report from last year.
“My biggest thing is professional development,” said Capers. He said not enough teachers are trained in African-American studies.
This year, the district’s upcoming professional development for social studies teachers – elementary in March and high school in June — will feature Amistad training, according to district officials.
“That would be real progress and commitment,” said Harris when told the district plans to provide training to all its social studies teachers this year. The commitment to Amistad is lukewarm throughout New Jersey.
Harris said places like Teaneck, Red Bank, and Montclair have done well to implement the Amistad curriculum (Paterson’s curriculum has much of the Amistad elements in Teaneck’s). However, most districts have not. Majority white districts see no need to teach African-American history in their schools. This is providing an “incomplete” and “distorted” account of history, he said.
The commission does not have statistics of the number of districts in compliance, said Harris.
Other large districts
Even the districts with large black populations like Jersey City and Newark lag behind, said Harris. “In their mind they think it should be taught in high school,” said Harris speaking of Jersey City. “I checked. They don’t even have that stuff written down that Paterson has.”
A key to figuring out whether a district is complying with the Amistad law is to look at elementary school grades, he said. For example, third graders in Paterson have to read, “The Gold Cadillac” by Mildred Taylor; seventh graders have to read “Twice Toward Justice” by Claudette Colvin. Both books feature black protagonists.
When asked about Newark, Harris replied, “Nope, they are not in compliance.” The Amistad law came into effect in 2002.
Caper’s committee of a dozen community leaders wants to ensure Paterson is in full compliance. He is not criticizing the district, he said.
“I’m kind of happy with where we are headed,” said Capers. “I want Paterson to be a model.”