Integrating the experiences of African Americans into the history curriculum has been an ongoing mission for Falls Church City Public Schools, but that effort will take a major step forward by introducing a high school class dedicated to African American studies next school year.
The new class is a product of years’ worth of work in terms of making education in the City of Falls Church more equitable.
“When African-American history is incorporated as a part of U.S. history, it puts all of their contributions into context,” William Bates, FCCPS’ chief academic officer, said. “Their inventions and influence on law and policy have typically been little snippets here and there.”
This model was highlighted at a virtual panel discussion titled “Mainstreaming African American History in the Schools,” which featured a list of movers and shakers in both the school system and local history in Falls Church — Ron Anzalone, chair of the Falls Church Historical Commission; Edwin Henderson, founder of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation and an interim member of F.C.’s school board; and Dr. Peter Noonan, Superintendent of Falls Church schools.
Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School Principal Valerie Hardy and Bates were also part of the panel.
According to Noonan, broadening the scope of the history classes was in response to instances of hateful speech from students that the school system became aware of a few years back.
It prompted an equity audit by Dr. Julian Williams, the former vice president for compliance, diversity and ethics at George Mason University, who gave a top-to-bottom look at how the school could improve at the social, financial and leadership levels.
The removal of the annual Colonial Day for its representation of historical events was part of that review. As was a study of Mexican milkweed and its relationship to monarch butterflies due to elements of cultural appropriation. Dr. Jennifer Santiago was also elevated as the director of equity and excellence for Falls Church schools by the end of this process.
It’s all been done in the name of bringing equity to the fore, which is a change in how education is conventionally delivered.
“When school divisions discuss equity, it’s sort of antithetical to how schools have been developed historically,” Noonan said. He elaborated on that by saying that schools typically try to stratify kids — by achievement, for example. He said Falls Church schools are “not in that business.”
“We’re going to unapologetically give more to students who receive less historically, so they can reach the best of their abilities,” Noonan continued.
Equity in terms of lesson plans has emphasized on fleshing out, as Bates mentioned, the “snippets” of African American history.
Henderson said it’s important that “black students need to know their history doesn’t begin with this tragedy of slavery.” It begins in Africa, he continued, and the richness of that continent.
Later on, the lessons should zero-in on those parts of American history that African Americans played an integral part in, according to Anzalone. From the Buffalo Soldiers who fought in the Civil War, to the Tuskegee Airmen and the Red Ball Express, with the former fighting in WWII and the latter being the supply backbone of the Allied invasion of Europe.
“It’s not like Black history hasn’t existed, or doesn’t matter, it just hasn’t mattered as much. And then it’s relegated to one month,” Henderson said.
Part of this effort is exposing children to African Americans in their course material in school-age classes. Henderson pointed to an introductory yoga book, and another called “Angela’s Airplane,” which features the story of a Black girl who commandeers a passenger jet.
For his part, Noonan added that having Hardy and Bates, who are both Black, in such prestigious positions also exposes kids to African Americans in ways that they may not often be depicted.
“It’s to show African Americans are part of the fabric of society,” Henderson said. “That’s why I pushed so hard for Mary Ellen Henderson to be the name of the middle school because I wanted students to see African Americans in a light that they usually wouldn’t.”
All of the educators on the panel pointed to the students for being leaders on this front.
Noonan said students have taken charge in social justice initiatives around town — whether it be with protests, such as the one in response to the George Floyd killing last June, or clubs that have sprouted up at the middle and high school.
To Noonan, it’s the school system’s job to provide students the opportunity to pursue these interests. It goes back to empathy for him, and how everyone should be empathetic in their desire for students to have their voices and feelings heard.
Bates said that young people aren’t shying away from being empathetic and caring, but also not concealing their outrage and emotion for certain instances either.
He noted that whether it’s issues of gun control or social justice generally, young people have been at the center, even those as young as 15 or 16 years old.
“It’s about getting out of their way and letting them lead,” Hardy said. “There are so many examples of our students showing us a path forward as adults.”