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Alpena schools pushed on black history

Curricula reviewed in light of Floyd death, Black Lives Matter movement

AP Photo This undated photo shows Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old black Chicago boy, who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in Mississippi.

ALPENA — Several school districts in Northeast Michigan will review their curricula in light of recent social justice issues and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Alpena Public Schools Superintendent John VanWagoner recently told his school board he had instructed administrators to review APS’s curriculum related social justice, cultural awareness, and racism after a petition with 275 signatures was submitted by John Mack, who graduated from Alpena High School in 2015.

Mack said the education he received in Alpena didn’t prepare him for the diverse world beyond the school. Mack said he first learned about racism, especially racist police practices, during his sophomore year at Central Michigan University, when he had a Black roommate.

“We would be fundamentally treated differently when he was with us,” Mack said. “The police would be less friendly, they would try to search our car, they would suspect us of wrongdoing much more when he was with us. That really opened my eyes to the plight of minorities in this country.”

Alpena Public Schools is 94% white.

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Alpena resident John Mack is pictured Thursday in downtown Alpena.

Mack said history is taught from a Eurocentric perspective and students aren’t taught about the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 or Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black teen brutally murdered in 1955 after allegedly flirting with a white woman. The woman later recanted her story.

He said white privilege is a hard topic to talk about in Alpena, because 40% of APS students are poor enough to be eligible for free or reduced-price lunch at school.

“It is very hard to tell a poor white person that they are privileged,” he said, but white privilege extends beyond economics.

Alcona Community Schools and Hillman Community Schools have not been petitioned, but officials say curricula in those districts may also be reviewed.

Alcona Superintendent Dan O’Connor said his staff has discussed the need to assess what strengths and weaknesses Alcona’s lessons might have around racial prejudice.

He said staff have also requested diversity training.

“The reality is our staff — not by choice — but, we’re not a very diverse group of staff, and we want to make sure we’re providing a balanced education and history for all students, and our staff as well, so they’re comfortable talking about it ,” he said.

Hillman Superintendent Carl Seiter said in an email to The News his staff has not had discussions on the topic, yet, because they have not been together since mid-March, when schools were closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Seiter, who also is superintendent of Atlanta Community Schools, said his teachers teach to mandated state standards, but he would like to begin conversations with his staff on how they can incorporate changes like celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day properly and in greater depth so it’s not just about a day on the calendar.

“How can we help learn different cultures throughout the entire school year with our instruction will be the focal point of discussion,” he said in the email. “All cultures in the world need to be studied and in such a way that no one culture is better than another. We teach and model tolerance and respect every day. Treat everyone with dignity and compassion.”

Rogers City Area Schools Superintendent Nick Hein said his teachers, too, follow state standards, which teachers review annually.

“The Michigan Department of Education establishes social studies standards, but does not provide curriculum,” Jim Cameron, social studies consultant with the Michigan Department of Education, said in an email to The News. “Curricula are designed by local school districts and schools for K-12 which need to address all standards for each grade level. Courses can be titled various ways as long as they address the standards.”

Cameron said in the email that the state revises social studies standards about every seven years. The latest revision was adopted by the state Board of Education in June 2019.

He said a bias review committee examines all the proposed changes before they’re adopted, and final drafts are shared with cultural and ethnic groups — such as the NAACP and the Michigan Tribal Education Directors before they’re formally submitted to the state board.

Cameron said Black Lives Matter and social justice are important issues in history and civic life and can be included in curriculum as early as first grade.

Kyrie Momrick, an APS parent who signed Mack’s petition, said via Facebook Messenger that nearly all of American history is written and taught from a whitewashed perspective.

“Diversity is beautiful, different cultures are beautiful if only one can learn and educate themselves to understand that a brighter future is possible and includes all humans being humane to each other first,” she said. “And we start with Black Lives Matter. We help an oppressed race by educating the next generation, we reform the curriculum to include their struggles so our kids recognize that the change can start with them. We look into and teach about unintentional racial biases and profiling.”

Momrick said everyone can make themselves aware of their unconscious biases and learned behavior to do and be better.

Not everyone in town supports the idea.

“It’ll only have a liberal spin on it,” Randy Zeeman, of Alpena, commented on The News’ Facebook page. “A liberal spin is not getting the truth. A liberal spin is teaching the young skulls full of mush what they want them to know instead of teaching them fact and letting them decide for themselves what to think of it.”

Several other commenters said “all history” should be taught in schools.

Crystal Nelson can be reached at 989-358-5687 or cnelson@thealpenanews.com.

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