City schools to update U.S. history lessons to more clearly spell out slavery’s role

By Charlotte Matherly, contributor

The city schools will update textbooks and curriculum this fall to more directly acknowledge slavery and white supremacy in U.S. history — changes that a state commission had recommended last year.

This was one among several items the Harrisonburg City School Board tackled at its work session Tuesday, including a discussion over teacher salaries and an update on growth of the dual language program. 

The curriculum changes will affect social studies courses starting this fall. And Harrisonburg City Public Schools Superintendent Michael Richards said he supported the changes to the content in Virginia and U.S. history classes.

“I think it’s very important that we are very accurate in the way that we portray history,” Richards said. “I think there have been some pretty egregious omissions and inaccuracies, and specifically in the way that marginalized groups have been represented in history.”

Kirk Moyers, the district’s social studies coordinator, outlined for the board several examples of the technical edits, which Gov. Ralph Northam’s Commission on African American History Education recommended.

One change in the 4th-grade Virginia Studies program emphasizes the role of slavery in the Civil War. The current version of the textbook, says the South seceded from the U.S. due to “economic differences.” The updated version will recognize how “cultural, economic, and constitutional differences between the North and the South based in slavery” is what resulted in the Civil War.

Richards referenced another edit that Moyers presented — one that acknowledges slavery and white supremacy. The current version of the curriculum indicates African Americans came to the U.S. to help the economy, but this fall’s text will recognize that African Americans didn’t come here by choice. 

“Did they help the economy or were they brought over as economic tools by people with power?” Richards said. “There’s a big difference in the way that you describe these things … I’m encouraged that the state of Virginia has decided that it’s time to make those more accurate.”

Teachers will work to embed those edits to current curriculum guides throughout the summer and distribute resources to teachers in August in time for the new course content to be taught this fall.

Dual language program grows

The district’s dual language program, which is in place in nearly every school in the district, continues to attract interest — so much so that the district needs more teachers for it.

From the early school years and continuing throughout high school, dual language program students are enrolled in at least two classes — like science and social studies — that are taught in Spanish. Jeremy Aldrich, director of teaching and learning, presented the program’s successes to the board.

The program holds a huge benefit for both Hispanic and non-Hispanic children. About 27% of the 1,400 enrolled students are white. For them, the program fosters multiculturalism and bilingualism, which Aldrich said will bode well for them in their future careers. 

For the 64% who are Hispanic, the dual language program allows them an entry point — meaning they won’t be held back and forced to learn English if they already speak Spanish. They can continue high academic achievement, Aldrich said, while simultaneously acquiring English skills.

“Not only is dual language meeting our expectations, it’s really, in this division, one of our most powerful leverages for equity,” Aldrich said. “It’s having outcomes that show great equity in academic outcomes as well as creating the kind of culture and the kind of city that we want to live in.”

Aldrich said a study from 2016 to 2019 showed both Hispanic and non-Hispanic students in dual language programs had significantly better pass rates in all subjects on Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests than peers not in the program.

Board member Nick Swayne also pointed out the benefits toward English speakers, even regarding their first language.

“You learn so much about our own language and how it works,” Swayne said. “I think we’re setting our students up for great success across the board … I think it’s just a phenomenal program.”

Board member Obie Hill said he was concerned it might be difficult to teach students difficult mathematical or scientific terms in a second language. While Aldrich said that can be challenging, it also offers an opportunity for students to bridge the gap between Spanish and English, further increasing the program’s multicultural benefits.

Another problem the district faces is a need for more dual language teachers. 

Many require visas to come to work in the U.S. And while the state makes that possible, it comes with other costs, like travel and relocation, that can discourage teachers from making the trip. Board members discussed potentially offering to pay for these expenses in order to entice teachers to work in their schools, but it’s possible some dual language classes — especially kindergarten classes — in certain schools won’t be available this fall. 

Board debates merits of raises 

The board also heard reports on teachers’ salary scales. As of 2022, teachers in Harrisonburg will have a starting salary of $48,500. Within 30 years, the salary will grow incrementally, adding about $20,000 more. 

Tracy Shaver, the school district’s chief financial officer, said Harrisonburg is ranked fourth for teachers’ salaries out of 15 surrounding areas. But several board members expressed their desire to raise the wage further.

Swayne was among the most outspoken, arguing that teachers should be treated as the professionals they are. He said teachers often work 10-hour days as well as throughout the summer. Rather than focusing on the bottom line and what surrounding counties are doing, he said school districts should try to attract and retain teachers with a fair salary.

“We always look at things about how teachers perform and other aspects of the profession and compare ourselves to places like Norway or Finland,” Swayne said. “But we don’t compare their salaries. Those guys are making as much as engineers do … If you pay the folks at the same scale as engineers, you get a different result than if you pay them at the low end of the scale.”

Also at the meeting: 

The school board also discussed updates on the development of the new high school. Richards said opening the school for the fall of 2023 might be a stretch, but it’s dependent upon the pandemic and weather conditions. A recent four-cent local property tax, which the city council approved last month, has helped restart the construction of the second high school. 

Richards also spoke about “The World Is My Classroom” partnership with the Arts Council of the Valley. As the school system helps Court Square Theater reopen, students will be allowed to use and visit the theater, gaining real-world, hands-on experience.

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