An opinion article in Bridge, an online news magazine, by writer Chastity Pratt Dawsey, criticizing her son's African American history class at Groves High School on February 19, is sparking discussion at the district level as to what the course should look like, who should teach it, and how best to inform while being respectful of various levels of knowledge, as board of education members listened to public comment at their February 26 meeting.
In her opinion piece, titled, “The miseducation of Michigan: How state fails kids in black history,” Dawsey wrote that her son, a Groves student, had barely been in his African American history class for 15 minutes the first day of the trimester when he texted her part of the syllabus, which included “From Civil Rights to Today,” noting the film “Boyz in the Hood,” “Inside the Bloods and the Crips,” a documentary, and readings, including the new Jim Crow.
“These were the planned classroom topics the teacher listed to cover the past 50 years of African-American history: an R-rated fictional movie about gang banging, a documentary about gang banging and a reading on mass incarceration,” Dawsey wrote. She noted the fictional film “Do the Right Thing” was also included, and noted that American history classes didn't include “The Godfather.”
“I had to wonder: Was this class being taken seriously? Or was this an example of why less than a third of students in Michigan pass the state social studies test?”
She and other parents complained within the first two weeks of the trimester, and the teacher was reassigned.
Superintendent Mark Dziatczak, who began as superintendent of the district on January 21 after serving the Troy School District as the deputy superintendent for teaching and learning, sent a letter out to all Birmingham Public Schools' parents on Thursday, February 21, stating, “It is clear that the district failed its obligation to provide an African American history course pilot that was both appropriate for our students and reflected the necessary input from our community, including the voices of many students, parents, teachers and administrators. We recognize that the resources listed in the course pilot syllabus failed to meet the depth and breadth of African American history. The syllabus that was distributed to students in our African American history course pilot should never have reached our students’ desks ...Part of my 100-Day transition plan for the district includes analyzing district operations leading to the design of better systems for new course considerations, approvals and reviews. Furthermore, I committed to outlining opportunities to produce curricular and instructional clarity including the district’s procedures related to approval of new courses. I also made a commitment to our Board of Education to deliver a summary report following the expiration of this important transition period. After the transition period expires, recommendations related to this subject for public review will be included in that report near the end of the school year.”
At the February 26 school board meeting, Arthur Jack, parent leader of the Birmingham African American Family Network, spoke both in response to Dziatczak's letter and Dawsey's opinion, and noted that he had had two of his children take the course; his son, two years ago, who enjoyed it, and his daughter, this year, “her expectation is more aligned with BET – Black Entertainment Television.
“This is a complex issue...The letter and note conveys more of a reaction, more in line with pacifying versus some actionable results since the first days in which it was brought up,” he said. “I think the root cause is centered around expectations and human nature followed by lack of internal acknowledgement of the syllabus… That's why, BPSBD, we have to take this seriously, this syllabus and this education plan. It's not about African American history – it's really about educating our students – all kids, not just African American kids. Teach the fullness of black history. Let's have a qualified teacher.”
He stated that the Birmingham African American Family Network parents would be available to assist.
Parent Hammy Dogan told the board. “There has to be a mentality of change within the district. The demographics is changing – meaning we're coming. We're gonna be here. We do not plan on going anywhere. When it comes to educating, we have to look at educating the whole individual, and educating from the ground up...exposing our young people to as many differences that make up this community, but make up this world, because we're all gonna be a part of it. When I looked at his particular syllabus, it was not only disrespectful, it was hurting. To have the temerity to put together a syllabus of that nature and present it to a classroom of young people to educate them, that's a mentality problem and it needs to change.”
He turned to Dziatczak and said, “You're the new man, the new man in charge, so we expect you to take the bull by the horn and perform a very good rodeo with it and wrap it up good and get it on the right path. We're here to work with you and help you.”
Scott Craig, the Seaholm teacher who initiated the course and initially taught it at Groves this year, said he “felt thrown under the bus by the letter sent home by the superintendent,” and that he had a lifetime understanding and commitment to civil rights.
“I looked at the best possible materials – most were written at a college level, and kids don't always want to read,” Craig said. “We used a lot of primary materials. It's a tragedy. It was a damn good course. I don't agree it needs to be a black teacher.”
Dziatczak spoke at the end of the meeting, “To those who spoke tonight, I am very grateful. I feel a very deep obligation to work with our community, our students, in a way that befits our school district, and I appreciate all the offers from parents who offered to walk with us as we make this happen. We're going to do the work, and I'm going to do the work.”