Multicultural curriculum alters face of history And English, math and science, too

October 05, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

In an East Baltimore classroom, dozens of black children face their fifth-grade math teacher, who holds a grainy photograph in her hands.

"Who can tell me what this is a picture of?" asks Cheryl Santoni, in her second year as a teacher at Dr. Bernard Harris Jr. Elementary School in East Baltimore.

"A pyramid," one girl replies.

"Where can you find pyramids?" Mrs. Santoni asks.

"Egypt," another child says.

"Does anyone know what continent Egypt is on?" asks Mrs. Santoni, searching the sea of hands.

"Europe," pipes up one young voice.

"Asia," says another child.

"Africa!" says a third.

"Excellent!" responds the teacher.

And a few minutes later, these children from inner-city Baltimore have mastered Egyptian numerals, effortlessly recording sums in a script thousands of years old.

This scene, which may soon be repeated in hundreds of Baltimore-area schools, represents nothing less than a revolution in the classroom.

Spurred by black activists, public school systems throughout the region are rapidly adding material to the curriculum that deals with minority history and culture.

In Baltimore, where the student body is 81 percent black, the city has undertaken a sweeping revision guided by some of the most prominent -- and controversial -- black educational theorizers.

But the suburban school districts aren't far behind:

* In Howard County, where the schools are 78 percent white, officials have spent three years correcting what one called "a white, European, male interpretation of the past that isn't accurate."

* In Anne Arundel schools, which are 81 percent white, an audit committee last year scoured the curriculum to address concerns of the county's sizable black population.

* In Carroll County, where 97 percent of the students are white, officials carefully review the textbooks to make sure that various ethnic groups are properly represented.

* In Harford County schools, with a growing minority population of 15 percent, students read literature from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and have the option of taking an African-American studies program in high school.

* And Baltimore County is focusing more intensely on the progress of its 21,000 minority students, admitting that the current curriculum falls short in dealing with the black American experience.

"The whole thing has to do with having kids feel like they're included," says Jill Christianson, a specialist in race and cultural issues with the state Department of Education.

In the past, the contributions of non-whites were often ignored or distorted, she notes. The changes are intended to correct the record and encourage minority student achievement. "There's something each one of us can learn from other people," says Ms. Christianson.

What form could these revisions take?

In mathematics, the new material might include work similar to that done at Dr. Bernard Harris Jr. Elementary, with students DTC studying the numbering system used by the ancient Egyptians, seen primarily as an African culture.

In science, students might use important archaeological finds to trace the development of the human race from Africa.

And students in the language arts might develop character sketches of important black Americans, or discuss recurring themes in African and black American literature.

Such changes could prove explosive. Nationally, the so-called "Afrocentric" or "multicultural" education movement has touched off a heated debate.

Proponents, led by scholars such as Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, of Temple University, see such changes as a long-needed correction to a curriculum historically dominated by a white European point of view.

But others warn that radicals in the Afrocentric movement want to replace one bias with another, something they say amounts to a separatist assault on American culture.

"We don't want to be Yugoslavia; we don't want to be Lebanon," says Dr. Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, a professors' organization. "It's quite easy to become those places if people work away at emphasizing differences." He agrees that a school curriculum should introduce students to a wide range of cultures other than their own. "But if you're asking where the paramount focus should be . . . the focus is going to be fairly heavily on the West," he said.

Such criticisms miss the point, says Dr. Asante, one of the foremost proponents of an African-oriented curriculum for black children.

"The aim is to teach children effectively," says Dr. Asante, chief consultant to Baltimore in its curriculum effort. "People have to feel that the information is not foreign to them, that it is a part of them."

For black students, that means using Africa and black American experiences as a starting point. The aim is not to displace information, but to give students a natural "hook" for their studies.

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