City weighs emphasis on African-American studies

September 14, 1990|By Will Englund

The Baltimore school board set the stage last night for a shift in the city schools' curriculum toward a greater emphasis on African and African-American history and culture.

The move adds Baltimore to a list of school systems that are de-emphasizing what critics call the schools' current "Eurocentric" curriculum -- a de-emphasis that has gone smoothly in some cities and generated considerable controversy in others.

Proponents argue that such changes in the curriculum give black students more involvement with their studies, and that they help all students understand different cultures.

Meldon S. Hollis, a Baltimore school board member who supportsthe change, said last night, "You ought to be able to see social and historical events through more than one set of eyes."

While the African and African-American curriculum was moving ahead last night, a school decentralization program was apparently put on hold after representatives from a variety of community groups complained that the public is being shut out of the planning.

The school board had intended to approve next Thursday a pilot program giving relative autonomy to 20 schools -- a program designed at the urging of the Baltimore Teachers Union -- but after hearing the complaints Joseph L. Smith, the board president, said he now doesn't know when the board might act.

On the curriculum change, though, the board acted with littlediscussion and no opposition.

What the board did was agree to appoint a task force that will recommend standards for the city's curriculum "which will provide an appropriate emphasis on African and Afro-American history, life, customs and traditions."

Those standards are to be incorporated into a new elementary school curriculum currently being written and are to be in place next fall. A new middle school curriculum and high school curriculum are to be adopted in the following two years.

Opponents of the change have argued in other cities that downplaying America's European heritage would mostly serve to further isolate inner city youngsters from the mainstream.

"It's hard to cut oneself off from white America in this country," Mr.Hollis said of that argument. "Go to a movie. Open a book. Turn on the television."

"We believe that everyone's values and contributions are important," said Superintendent Richard C. Hunter.

The task force is to review mathematics, science, English, foreign languages, social sciences, physical education and the arts to determine ways to "provide a greater depth, breadth and understanding of African and African-American" contributions, according to a report approved by the board.

The task force is to have 21 members. Mr. Hollis, who is head of the board subcommittee that is sponsoring the curriculum changes, said he has people in mind for the task force but he would not divulge their names last night.

The report approved by the board, as well as comments made afterward by Mr. Hollis and Dr. Hunter, steered between what is called a "multi-cultural approach," one that deals with the contributions and values of several ethnic groups, and an "Afrocentric" curriculum, which is based more strictly on African culture.

"The intention," said Dr. Hunter, "is to develop a multi-cultural curriculum, but one that emphasizes very much the contribution of Africans and African-Americans."

"The current curriculum does not adequately represent the culture of Africans and African-Americans," said Mr. Hollis. "The school system has committed itself to a more balanced view. I think that's good education. One of the values that we want to teach is that this country is made up of a mosaic."

The decentralization plan was the subject of a hearing before lastnight's regular meeting -- the last of four hearings on the plan but the first one to attract more than a handful of speakers.

At stake is the transfer of power from the central office to the city's teachers and principals. All the community representatives who spoke last night said they endorsed the idea. But they were sharply critical of the school system for not having more parents or members of the public in on the design of the plan.

"If a plan that will restructure the basic way in which schools operate is to work, it will need community awareness and support," said Chickie Grayson, president of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. "It has neither."

She called for the board to delay a vote on the plan until a "community forum" can be held. The request, she said, had the backing of such groups as the Baltimore Urban League, the Metropolitan Education Coalition, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Advocates for Children and Youth.

Afterward, Dr. Hunter pointed out that the decentralization plan grew out of the most recent teachers contract, which specified how it was to be drawn up by union and administration representatives.

"The plan had to be agreed to before it could be shared," he said.

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