Tuesday’s School Committee meeting took place at the Global Ministries Christian Church in Dorchester, where members resumed the annual tradition of meeting with METCO families in person after two years of convening remotely.
African American History Course Update
Lexington High School History and Social Studies Department Head Kerry Dunne presented an update about the brand-new LHS African American History course. The course, one of two to emerge from student activism as reported by the Lexington Times, includes three units: ‘Frameworks for Discussing Racism, Anti-Racism & the Black Experience in the U.S.’; ‘an Intellectual History of the Black Experience in America’; and ‘Activism Today & its Roots in the American Past.’
“By studying and addressing racial inequities and triumphs of the past,” the course description states, “participants in this class will be better prepared to understand racial justice today.”
The courses are open to all students grades 9-12, though only students grades 10-12 are eligible to take the course at the honors level, a standard practice across LHS one-semester social studies electives.
In the first year of LHS offering this course, 22 students are enrolled in the ongoing fall section, while the spring section is already full with 25 students. About half of the students enrolled in both sections live in Boston, Dunne said. Of all 47 students enrolled in either section of the course, 74% identify as “Black/African American or multiracial inclusive of Black/African American,” she added.
In explaining why they signed up for the course, students shared comments such as “I hadn’t seen a lot of electives about African American History and it really interested me” and “to learn about the past of African Americans and to learn about racism.”
Dunne said one student, Benjamin, described appreciating that the course has so far allowed him to “hear political and social perspectives from people who I don’t normally interact with…those perspectives have challenged and morphed my own ideas about race in America and at our school.”
When asked for ideas to improve the course, student Cherika said that “Although Mr. Q is a great teacher, it would be more impactful to be taught by a Black person or POC.”
Another student, Nylah, said “this class should be pushed more to students that aren’t only Black; oftentimes these kinds of classes are only really discovered through word of mouth.” She hopes the class could “ensure there is at least some understanding of how this country has impacted people of color” for students of other ethnicities.
Some parents built on Cherika’s reflection during an opportunity for public comment on Tuesday, stressing the importance of involving people with lived experience in teaching this history and shaping related curricula.
LPS alum Aaron Charles now has a daughter in first grade in Lexington. “It was a culture shock to me when I was learning about African American history and the people who were teaching it to me didn’t look like me and everybody around me – except for, like, one other person in the class – didn’t look like me,” he recalled. “When you’re teaching this curriculum, how do you go about making people who are learning about their history feel comfortable in the classroom” when almost all others look different?
“I think that that’s an excellent point, and important for us to think about,” Superintendent Julie Hackett said. She recalled that when high school students submitted a petition to establish new African American and Asian American History courses, they specifically pointed to having had few to no educators of color in their entire K-12 educations as one reason the courses were so critical to add.
“We have taken that to heart…approximately a third of our new hires are educators of color,” Hackett said. “We are changing as a school system…in a time and space where people make a lot of excuses about not being able to change, we’ve managed to begin.”
“We still have a long way to go, but that’s one of our deeply held values,” Hackett said.
Lexington K-12 METCO Director Barbara Hamilton added that as another strategy to improve student experiences, she has encouraged educators to do thoughtful prep work before introducing topics in a course like African American History: “setting the class norms, talking about how the content may impact people in different ways.”
While some educators have succeeded at implementing these practices, that hasn’t always happened; Hamilton has seen the challenges that arise in the absence of thoughtful prep work.
“It is a continued work in progress,” she said, “because the reality is that we are going to have white teachers teaching curricul[a], at times, that they are not themselves as comfortable with.”
In these cases, “it’s the district’s responsibility…to build capacity within our school district and equip…our teachers so that they can have the kinds of conversations and dialogue with students,” Hamilton said – a challenge she and Hackett discuss regularly.
“It’s a work in progress and also requires a partnership for you at home to help them learn how to negotiate that as well,” Hamilton added.
Sheggai Tamerat, a teacher in Boston whose daughter is in first grade at LPS, applauded the district for taking “much-needed steps” toward building a more equitable education. As the district continues to implement programs and curricula like the new African American History course, Tamerat asked educators not to lose sight of celebrating and encouraging joy for Black and brown students amidst painful history lessons that risk centering “a lens of disempowerment.”
“I think there are plenty of opportunities to bring that [joy] in terms of the art, the history, the literature,” Tamerat said. She offered to volunteer her own English teaching experience to contribute and plan in this area, but also encouraged “all the teachers not to forget about that part – so the students and our children know how rich and deep their history is, how much of an impact they continue to have on the world, and how we can find even in those moments of struggle and protest…there’s just real hope, and joy, and love.”
School Committee Chair Sara Cuthbertson welcomed Tamerat to share any ideas during the curricular review process. She agreed with Tamerat that LPS “need[s] to do both” – dedicating time and space to hard history as well as “triumphs, and joy, and celebration.”
Hackett added, “P.S., we’re hiring.”
Planning to bring back Elementary World Language
Last fall, the School Committee unanimously voted in support of using some federal pandemic relief funds to kickstart reestablishing Lexington’s Elementary World Language program. In a presentation, Director of Elementary Education Caitlin Ahern said the district hopes to implement the program in the next fiscal year.
LPS plans to incorporate language instruction as a special twice a week, for 30 minutes each, and to teach one language per school beginning in kindergarten, Ahern said. Whether every school should offer the same language is still an open question; Ahern encouraged additional parent feedback, noting that current feedback has been mixed on this front with about one third of families interested in elementary students learning a variety of languages, and another third neutral on that question. Ahern said the district will likely make this decision before the winter holidays.
Of about 1,000 survey respondents, about 90% “strongly agree” or “agree” that it is important for elementary school students to have the opportunity to begin to learn one or more languages other than English in school, suggesting widespread support for the return of the program. Most respondents also strongly agreed or agreed that students should have the opportunity to learn the same language K-12, and that each elementary school community should have a say in which language their school teaches when the program begins.
Performing Arts Update
Jared Cassedy, Lexington’s K-12 Performing Arts Coordinator, shared that Lexington Public Schools is focused on diversifying its repertoire and decolonizing its music resources to make programming reflective and inclusionary of the full school community.
Lexington’s Performing Arts programs are also prioritizing concrete accessibility – for instance, offering financial support to help make instrument rentals available to any student who wants to play, and structuring programs so that students do not have to start playing instruments in elementary school to participate in programs at the middle and high school levels. Cassedy stressed that private lessons are not a prerequisite for participating in any LPS music program.
The district will administer a K-12 Performing Arts survey to learn more about student and parent experiences and programming interests in January, and will hold a meeting to hear additional feedback from METCO families Feb. 6, Cassedy said.
Ratifying a new ALA contract
The School Committee unanimously ratified a Memorandum of Agreement for a one-year successor contract with the Association of Lexington Administrators (ALA).