Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Black History 101: Local school districts plan to tackle race relations in the classroom

Civil Rights march in Washington, D.C. in 1963 (Library of Congress)
Civil Rights march in Washington, D.C. in 1963 (Library of Congress)

There will be a new curriculum to educate students in Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools about race, African American history and culture.

Gov. Ralph Northam formed a commission on African American history education last August, so the state is creating a new curriculum as a high school elective course, said Steve Legawiec, coordinator for social studies at WJCC.

The same commission is trying to integrate African American history into all K-12 classes which comes out in 2022.

The school district has formalized a partnership with The Village Initiative, a nonprofit promoting unity — the partnership will work on a project to transform oral interviews into teaching materials for educators.

“We’ve put together a project where they have students…at the college who are interviewing local African American members of the community about integration,” he said. “The project got a little bit interrupted by COVID-19.”

Students had already completed the interviews and are transitioning to the next step of turning their findings into a teaching source. They plan to present the documents to the NAACP.

Legaweic’s work with The Village Initiative inspired him to expand U.S. geography course for 5th graders to include American stories of black history, women’s history, immigration stories, and help the students find their own story.

The plan is in the early stages and won’t be implemented in the school curriculum this year, he said.

Legaweic expanded the geography course because he wanted to get more inclusiveness in the curriculum and give students a deeper sense of understanding diverse voices rather than just looking at a map.

“The state and WJCC Schools has done a pretty good job of integrating diversity in the curriculum since 2008,” he said. “We’re not just studying American Indian history in the colonial era or only talking about African American history in slavery or the Civil War movement. We’re working to integrate diversity in the curriculum. I wouldn’t say we were behind but we are continuing to move forward.”

So what about other minority groups being included in the school district’s curriculum?

“Absolutely,” Legaweic said, adding more diverse voices are making their way into the curriculum. “The state in terms of what they have changed with the 2015 curriculum…is to include stories from those groups as well to help kind of complete the picture.”

He said African American history is prominent in the curriculum and its ties to the history of the surrounding area and Virginia as a whole.

“These stories in the state and local curriculum have been present for quite some time,” he said. “I think we are in a moment where there is a little more focus now on the African American [community].”

“Something that is very important to me is making sure our teachers are equipped to handle tough conversations,” he added. “A teacher might be an expert on an era but we need to remember we can’t know someone’s lived experiences.”

Teachers and staff in the York County School Division are also working to integrate topics on diversity, history and inclusion into the classroom.

Katherine Goff, the division’s spokeswoman, said YCSD included an objective addressing cultural diversity learning opportunities in the division’s long term strategic plan, which was adopted three years ago.

The division has worked since then to include culturally diverse reading materials at all grade levels that help students find titles which will expand their education. 

“We are passionate about providing texts for students so they can see themselves represented and have rich conversations in the classroom and among peers about what they’re seeing portrayed in texts,” said Vika Stephenson, instructional coordinator for K-12 history.

Teachers also undergo regular training that educates them on how to include topics of diversity and African American history in classroom discussions while still following the Standards of Learning curriculum from the Virginia Department of Education, said David Reitz, director of elementary instruction.

For example, Goff said if students are learning about the Civil War, the objective is to incorporate all sides of that history and include local figures as well.

There isn’t currently a plan to integrate any new courses into next year’s selection because course decisions for the following year are made every October. However, Goff said discussions for the following school year will include information about the new Virtual Virginia courses, which could potentially mean African American history would be offered to students as an elective. 

As local school districts look to expand their offerings of African American history and culture, as well as other aspects of diversity, educators hope to create students who will be well-rounded in their perspectives when they become adults.

“We want to make sure we are embracing everyone and engaging them in learning opportunities that expose them to different cultures,” Stephenson said. “So then they’re empowered to go out into their communities and give back and make changes. We want to make sure our students are ready for this world and all that comes along with it.”


Julia Marsigliano
Julia Marsigliano
Julia Marsigliano is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She covers everything on the Peninsula from local government and law enforcement agencies to family-run businesses and weather updates. Before WYDaily, she covered Hampton and Newport News for WYDaily’s sister publication, HNNDaily before both publications merged in December 2018. Julia was born in Tokyo, Japan and moved to Long Island, New York in 2001. A true New Yorker, she loves pizza, bagels and good Chinese food. Send comments, tips and other tidbits to You can follow her on Twitter at @jmarsigliano

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