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Education

Houston Students Push Teachers, State Board To Adopt Anti-Racist Curriculum

A screenshot of a Change.org petition asking the Texas State Board of Education to review its social studies standards for textbook publishers.
Change.org
More than 11,000 people signed an online petition for the Texas State Board of Education to review its social studies standards for textbook publishers.

Texas students have lobbied the State Board of Education and now are pressing school districts in Greater Houston to teach what they call an anti-racist curriculum.

To high school senior Erika Alvarez, some of her most important history lessons didn't come up in class at Cinco Ranch High School in Katy.

Instead Erika, 17, learned some of that history on social media, like in this TikTok video about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre perpetrated against one of the wealthiest Black communities in the country — a community nicknamed “Black Wall Street.”

“Never, never even heard the term Black Wall Street before,” Erika said. “And now over the summer, I learned and I realized, ‘Wow, like that is something I definitely missed out on.'”

Across Texas, there have been efforts to change what public school students learn about racism. And with the election earlier this month, advocates for those efforts had hoped they’d get a boost if Democrats flipped more seats at the Texas Board of Education. But that didn’t happen.

So now, students like Erika are moving ahead to try and make their own changes, so other students don’t miss out on a fuller picture of history.

“You don’t really question it until you realize just how much exactly you didn’t learn,” said Erika, who came to Katy from Venezuela about four years ago. “Honestly, most of the United States has a very Eurocentric, Western civilization approach. You don’t learn about prominent figures from other races or other backgrounds. You don’t learn about the very rich histories of South America or Africa.”

She and other other students have lobbied the State Board of Education and now are pressing school districts in Greater Houston to teach what they call an anti-racist curriculum.

What do they mean by “anti-racist?” Erika said it's like stopping a bully.

“There’s a bully, there's a victim, there’s also a bystander,” Erika said. “If you're, like, simply just not racist, you are that bystander.” Erika said.

“And they tell you in school, they teach you, being a bystander is bad, because you’re complicit in the act,” she said.

To be be anti-racist is to stop watching and “to take action if you see injustice,” Erika added.

Another grassroots group pushing for anti-racist curriuculum is called Diversify Our Narrative. College students in California started it after George Floyd's death.

Cheryl Lee, 16 and a junior at DeBakey High School, is with the local chapter. She said they're asking teachers and administrators to give more emphasis to non-white, non-European perspectives.

In her school, for example, Cheryl said required reading for students taking college-prep English has changed. This year, they read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,which details how doctors took cells from a young Black woman with cervical cancer without asking, and how those cells never died and launched a multi-million dollar industry.

Lee said it “connected a lot of things in my brain,” including racism, sexism and medical bioethics.

“I think it’s best to do it from a bottom-up level, because I feel like that’s the best way to gain traction as a movement, because you can personally use your personal connections, and then kind of reach out to people,” Lee said.

And once there’s “a big enough crowd,” Lee said she believed it would be easier to get support from the Texas Board of Education, which approves learning standards for the state's 5 million public school students.

The Republican-dominated state board has a reputation for controversial and politicized learning standards, such as naming Moses as a Founding Father and downplaying the role of slavery in the Civil War.

President Donald Trump has also taken up curriculum as a major issue, creating a “patriotic education” commission.

Still, in recent years, the Texas board has revised its learning standards to teach slavery played the “central role” in causing the Civil War. And the board has approved new ethnic studies courses, such as African American studies. Those offerings fill in the gap, according to Board Member Barbara Cargill, a Republican from Conroe. Cargill also said that teachers can pull current events into social studies classes.

“In light of current events, our social studies teachers will integrate appropriate lessons for their students, as they are trained to do. The (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) are the minimum standards that are required to be taught, and since history is alive and evolving, our teachers know to use them as the baseline while adding the impact of current events. That is what makes history ‘come alive’ for our students!” Cargill wrote in an email earlier this year.

But State Board Member Aicha Davis, a North Texas Democrat, said she's looking ahead to 2023, when Texas does a full review of its learning standards for social studies.

“This is an opportunity to really make changes so that we are again, teaching truth, and so that that curriculum is anti-racist, and that it focuses on the building of America that is diverse, and that you have all these different cultures that have contributed to who we are,” Davis said.

And, Davis said, teaching against racism, is not just about history. It touches all subjects, including math and science, which the Texas Board of Education will have a chance to address as it reviews science and health standards this week, Tuesday through Friday.

“You will have a student who’s graduating from a Texas public school, and they can’t name not one black or brown scientist or engineer or inventor or anything,” she said. “So we have to change that.”