2024-05-27 11:31 PM

Memorial Day 2024 Issue!

 As it has done often throughout history, Arlington is resisting edicts from Richmond, this time on the pending controversial standards for how K-12 schools should teach history.

The ideological changeover from the Northam to the Youngkin administration last summer turned the once-every-seven-years standards-writing process into a political fracas. The standards as originally drafted by educators and topic specialists reflected input from two special new bodies — Northam’s African American History Education Commission along with the Culturally Relevant and Inclusive Education Practices Advisory Committee.

But Youngkin — acting amidst the national conservative movement to block the collegiate-level “critical race theory” from public schools as too negative — appointed new Education Board members who asked for time to study the draft some found vague. Then came revisions by an outside consultant that removed many references to civil rights history and holidays and restored Greece and Rome as the only ancient civilizations to make note of. Even Youngkin himself was displeased, so it was back to the editing room.

“Whitewashed,” is the term used by Atif Qarni, Northam’s education secretary now at Temple University. “It pretty much wiped away black and brown voices,” he told a Feb. 8 session of the Arlington Committee of 100. With Arlington Public Schools panelists, he spoke after Superintendent Francisco Duran in December told the school board the Younkin approach “ignores history and leaves students feeling unseen,” so Arlington will continue its diverse curriculum.

Kerri Hirsch, Arlington’s director of curriculum and instruction, noted that while standards form the instructional core, they represent a minimum, and locals “have autonomy to add other topics.” An example is teaching grades 1-3 about the positive achievements of the ancient Mali civilization in Africa before tackling the sadder topic of slavery in grade 4. “We are mindful of being inclusive so that students see themselves and recognize people who may not be like them. We present students with facts, but rather than tell them what conclusions to draw, we show primary sources” and address “uncomfortable truths in our history.”

Terrell Fleming, supervisor of social studies for the Office of Academics, said Arlington high school students will pilot the new College Board Advanced Placement unit on black history just rejected by conservatives in Florida. At the elementary level, he cautioned, teachers are generalists and not content-specific, and time is tight in the 178-day school year. “We do what’s in the best interest of students,” anticipating “what they will ask about,” which includes social justice movements, slavery and voting rights at appropriate ages. Change over the past 400 years “was the result of average individuals making a conscious effort.” Planners also seek to “infuse black joy in our curriculum.”

Local historian Alfred Taylor expressed concern that schools focus on national figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks at the expense of local people kids can “relate to, see and touch.” Rather than addressing only slavery and civil rights, why not add more about black achievement “before and after” those eras?

The APS staffers said they include such references.

Qarni accused the Youngkin team of flouting state law at a time of political polarization due to a “lack of understanding” of the expertise of educators. Stressing concepts over facts, he hopes that after public comment this month to see a return to the standards as originally delivered.

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Black History Month brings showings of the new public TV documentary on Arlington-raised singer Roberta Flack.

But there’s an oddity in the celebration of the gospel and classical-trained pianist who topped 1970s charts with “Killing Me Softly,” “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and “Feel Like Making Love.” Nowhere does it mention that she grew up here and attended Hoffman-Boston High.

Only in an interview discussing civil rights does Flack mention her former neighborhood of Green Valley. Local folks tell me she’s known to avoid owning her Arlington connection. My inquiries to director Antonino D’Ambrosio went unanswered, despite the irony that her girlhood was spent walking distance from WETA and PBS.

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