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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Local educators, students fear inaccurate Black history coverage in wake of new standards

The changes will not be immediately implemented

Jordan Marlowe has taught at Newberry High School for 17 years and piloted the school’s African American history class. He’s served as the class’s instructor since its inception four years ago.

History serves as a lens to understand the modern world and how problems in it came to be, the 46-year-old teacher said. If taught inaccurately or with bias, he believes educational ignorance could lead to national conflict.

“When we think of America as one nation, it’s really important in order to be one community, that we all understand our history in a similar way,” Marlowe said. “When we try to teach history in different ways across the country, I think we set ourselves up for future generations of disagreements.”

Marlowe and other educators worry about the classrooms of future students after the Florida Board of Education issued a new set of standards for African American history instruction in public schools.

The standard set was approved for the K-12 curriculum at an Orlando board meeting July 19.

The new standards require curriculum for middle school students to include “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit,” according to a document listing the curriculum posted on the Florida Department of Education.

Implying positive qualities came out of slavery can be proven false by pointing to current inequalities locally, Marlowe said.

“Wealth in Alachua County is strikingly divided along race lines, and to say that enslaved people learned skills that they were able to use to their economic benefit later on simply isn’t borne out by our history,” he said.

The newly reviewed curriculum was issued after the state passed new legislation under Gov. Ron DeSantis that prohibits school instruction from suggesting anyone is privileged or oppressed based on their race or skin color.

Beyond the newest standard changes, Marlowe said the public school system needs to better address discriminatory efforts in history after the Civil War as well.

“I think there’s a direct line between that decision — to view ending slavery as America’s only responsibility for those crimes — and the wealth disparity that we have today,” Marlowe said.

The curriculum is another development in Florida’s continuous debate about Black history, following DeSantis' administration blocking a preparatory version of Advanced Placement African American Studies from Florida classrooms earlier this year.

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Alex Lanfranconi, the director of communications for the Florida Department of Education, said the department was proud of the most recent curriculum change and acknowledged the standards were created by a group of 13 educators and academics in a statement.

“It’s sad to see critics attempt to discredit what any unbiased observer would conclude to be in-depth and comprehensive African American History standards,” Lanfranconi said. “They incorporate all components of African American History: the good, the bad and the ugly.”

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson publicly condemned the new curriculum in a release statement.

“It is imperative that we understand that the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow were a violation of human rights and represent the darkest period in American history,” Johnson said.

Students like Katherine Canez, an 18-year-old UF biochemistry freshman and recent Gainesville High School graduate, also felt the new standards were deeply flawed.

The changes were a reflection of the state legislature’s bigotry, she said.

“I want to come off strongly: I think this is a disgusting whitewashing of history,” she said. “I think it’s ridiculous to try to come up with justifications for slavery in order to alleviate white guilt.”

Canez was unable to take an African American History class in high school due to a lack of student registration, but wants to learn more through UF Quest classes. 

Students and school faculties alike should oppose the legislation, she said.

“I hope that as an institution of education, we can and we do have the gall and the audacity to stand up and say, ‘I’m not taking your redacted history book,’” Canez said.

The Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers union, referred to the newly passed curriculum as a disservice to students. 

Andrew Spar, the association’s president, tweeted a statement about the curriculum.

“How can our students ever be equipped for the future if they don’t have a full, honest picture of where we’ve come from?” Spar wrote. “Florida’s students deserve a world-class education that equips them to be successful adults who can help heal our nation’s divisions rather than deepen them.”

The new curriculum could disrupt recent decisions in the Alachua County Public School system.

The district recently purchased new social studies textbooks off the existing pre-approved list by the Florida Department of Education.

Alachua County School Board Chair Tina Certain said it’s possible the new curriculum could conflict with the recently bought textbooks, putting the district and its teachers in a difficult position.

“My heart is just really heavy about it all because the teachers are put in a tight spot,” she said.

Local schools won’t have to fully implement the curriculum until the 2024-2025 school year, Certain said, and the school system hopes to have several professional developments beforehand to best navigate the changes.“Nothing immediate will be taught,” she said.

Certain plans on personally contacting local representatives and senators to express her disapproval, and said she hopes local parents raise their voices as well.

“I’m hoping that we have a lot of people that will stand up and speak out, that it’s not just African Americans that are standing up and saying this is not right,” she said.

Nicole Beltrán, Aidan Bush, Amanda Friedman and Emma Parker contributed to this report.

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