Student Voice & African American Studies
The 2019-2020 academic year will serve as a watershed moment for public education. The nuanced experiences in each community in New Jersey were influenced by Presidential candidates campaigning, the impact of a pandemic that shut nearly everything down, and mounting social unrest related to the disparate, and often deadly, treatment of people of color. A hallmark of adolescence is questioning the power structure that exists. Consistently asking the question, “Why.” Why does something function the way it does, or why do things happen that are so unfair, or why can’t this be changed? As adults and educators, our default answer for too long has been, because that is the way that has been done. This answer is not palatable nor is acceptable. When students speak, when students question, we must be prepared to engage them in a meaningful manner, and we must be prepared to act.
The traumatic video of the killing of George Floyd had a profound and lasting impact on our students. An indelible image that stood out from a long series of indelible images and parallel stories of the tragic loss of life. Students sought support and guidance and help from the adults in their lives. In one-on-one discussions and in group meetings they expressed their desire to do something, to speak out, to make real change.
A group of our high school students, the Cherry Hill East African American Culture Club, organized a Juneteenth march and a rally under the slogan “Learning Begins Now: Stop the Ignorance.” On a warm June 2020 day, observed and celebrated as the ending of slavery in the United States, this brave and dynamic group of students led hundreds of participants through the community to the public library. With support from the Cherry Hill Police Department, the route was safe and monitored and the students and participants were able to speak freely and openly about what they were feeling, what they experienced, and what they demanded moving forward.
Beyond the pain and the fear that the students expressed, which permeated the crowd, their demand for a better, more thorough, more impactful educational experience for all students resonated with me and with the leadership team. We had to take action, we had to make change, we had to improve the experience for our students. The current generation of leaders has not done a great job of making impactful or lasting change for our students, so we are compelled to involve them and to listen to them. Education must be something with do with our students, not just to them or for them.
Dr. Stephanie James Harris the and the New Jersey Amistad Commission have been long established as the national model for “the implementation of materials and texts which integrate the history and contributions of African-Americans and the descendants of the African Diaspora.” The team in Cherry Hill’s curriculum and instruction office, and the classroom teachers in our district, have managed the integration of materials reflective of the mission of the Amistad Commission for many years. The integration appears K-12 and across content areas. Even with this work, the students who stepped forward said it was not enough. The students wanted more, demanded more, demanded that the district step forward and provide more education.
As an educational community, Cherry Hill maintains a Cultural Proficiency, Equity & Character Education Committee, affectionately referred to as C-PEaCE. This committee, long established and born from the work multiple committees who combined to unify their efforts, brings together certificated and non-certificated staff members, students, community members, retirees, and Board Members to focus on teaching “our children and ourselves to live, learn, and work together in a vibrant and diverse world in which mutual respect is the foundation.” Members of the committee, primarily students, have delivered multiple hours of presentations to the Board of Education during this academic year, with a focus on the experiences of students of color in the Cherry Hill School District. The presentations and the follow-up discussions have been honest and raw; they have been eye opening for Board Members and community members. Through their bravely sharing their stories in a community forum, the students underscored the need for real change to be made.
In February 2021, the Cherry Hill Board of Education strengthened its commitment to formally engaging in this work they approved an African American Studies Class as a graduation requirement, beginning with the Class of 2025. The district committed funds to hire new staff to meet the demand for the class and the first cohort of students will be in classrooms in September 2021. This step forward is a critical one for Cherry Hill, but it is only one step. A Social Justice class is in development as staff and students maintain critical attention on the experience of all groups who have historically been marginalized in schools and in society. Through open dialogue that provides authentic seats at the table of discussion, we will continue to improve as we work to answer the questions of “why” together.
The voices of our students have shaped the scope of the class. We have worked with Dr. Walter Greason, from Monmouth University, Dr. Donnetrice Allison, from Stockton University, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, from Georgia State University, and Dr. R. Scott Hanson, from the University of Pennsylvania. A community-wide organization, the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association (CHAACA), has been instrumental in adding perspective and counsel as the course is being developed. This is an effort of many who subscribe to the same goal – to improve the experience for our students. Interviews are underway to add staff members to teach the additional classes in September. The experience for our students will be forever changed. This class does not address all of the needs of our students or our community, but it is a step forward. We must continue to step forward.
While there have been detractors and naysayers along the way, the support from the district has been unwavering. Cherry Hill is not immune from folks who will devolve into a defensive posture, excoriating the need for a mandatory African American Studies Course. This change came about because of a systemic commitment to make it happen. This change came about because it is the right thing to do for our students – all our students.