Black studies neglect decried

City schools do little to use curriculum, museum official says


The man who cemented the vision for a statewide curriculum tied to Maryland's premier African-American history museum said in a biting critique yesterday that Baltimore students have been robbed of an opportunity to "know examples of courage and struggle" because the city school system has neglected to carry out the lesson plans.

George L. Russell Jr., board chairman of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture and a fundraising force behind its partnership with the Maryland State Department of Education, said that while other jurisdictions have incorporated the curriculum, Baltimore has done little.

"I am forced to wonder if most of the 2,610 packets sent by private courier service are still sitting in the office of the executive-level administrator who received them," he said during an event yesterday morning at the museum. "I am more than dismayed; I am angry at whatever shortcomings are the reason for this neglect towards such a critical learning tool for city children."

The partnership, which school officials promoted as the first of its kind in the nation, aims to expose students to Maryland's rich black history, such as Harriet Tubman of the Eastern Shore and paintings of less-known folk artist Joshua Johnson of Baltimore.

State education officials launched the $500,000 program last school year in 120 schools. Its first phase was rolled out statewide to grades four though eight last fall and will soon expand to target high school students.

Though Russell maintains that some Baltimore schools have never heard of the program, city schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland said officials distributed the curriculum to 120 schools in January.

"In fact, our own Baltimore City teachers helped to develop the grant and the subsequent lesson plans that the museum is touting throughout the state, so we have been on the ground floor of development of this program," Copeland said in a statement yesterday.

"We are pleased that the Reginald F. Lewis African American Museum has given us yet another way to supplement our teaching of African-American history and culture."

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she plans to ask Copeland about the delay. "I think it's disappointing, particularly when we have a system that is majority African-American students," she said. "We had every expectation that this would be delivered to the schools and teachers would use it."

The curriculum dispute appears to deepen an already hostile relationship between the state and the city. Last month, the state school board moved to take over 11 embattled city schools, but the General Assembly quickly passed a one-year moratorium on the takeover, overriding a gubernatorial veto.

"We have the whole special education thing that has been handed to us by the federal court, there are many issues related to this school system," said Grasmick.

Copeland's statement did not specify how many city schools are using the black history curriculum regularly.

Tracy El Fiki, the State Department of Education's liaison to the museum, said school staffs have been helping develop the program for three to four years, and 35 city teachers participated in the initial pilot testing.

After superintendents met on the curriculum in September, the state delivered compact discs of the full materials to systems statewide in November.

While not every school implemented the program right away, El Fiki said she received calls from Baltimore teachers as recently as late last month, complaining that they had yet to receive the materials.

Meanwhile, El Fiki said she has received inquiries from officials in states as far away as California, hoping to adapt the curriculum their schools. "Everyone wants a copy of these lessons," she said. "The entire nation has heard about it."

Russell said that in a check of 22 Baltimore schools, only Mount Royal Elementary/Middle reported using the program.

Principal Carolyn Freeland said the school's eighth-grade social studies teacher incorporated the curriculum into a unit on famous African-Americans in February. The teacher took students on a trip to the museum.

"The children got a lot out of it," said Freeland. "And there were some very spirited discussions on black history in the classroom."

But no other teachers there have used the curriculum. Freeland said it's up to teachers whether to incorporate it. "It's an adjunct kind of curriculum to be used with what is already being taught," she said.

Russell said the curriculum is part of his dream to see black history incorporated into classrooms. He called it "shameful" that large numbers of children in Baltimore's predominantly black school system have not been exposed to it.

"Certainly, I hoped that African-American youngsters in particular would see a fuller reflection of themselves in the lessons," he said, "that they would know examples of courage and struggle and triumph to bolster their own determination to persevere and achieve."

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