Mary Harris has spent the majority of her life in Frederick, including her school years.
The 80-year-old attended a segregated primary school and then Lincoln High School — now Lincoln Elementary School in Frederick — the school where black high school children in the county went. It was before integration in the school system began in 1956.
Harris later became a preschool teacher. Looking back on her education, however, she said that she learned very little about her heritage or African American history through her schooling, outside of some lessons during Black History Month in February.
Even in lessons about the southern part of the country and the Civil War, which Harris is particularly interested in, stories of slavery and plantation life or black soldiers were left out, she said.
“We are important. We’ve done important things for this country,” Harris said.
Desiree Tucker, mother of a Deer Crossing Elementary School student, has never met Harris. But the two share a desire for more diversity taught in the county’s schools.
Tucker does not want that same type of education for her son or any other minority student attending Frederick County Public Schools, which led her to create an organization called Women Solve. The first goal of the organization: work on getting more lessons with diverse perspectives introduced into the curriculum.
Tucker and her husband moved to Frederick two years ago from Prince George’s County. They came here because they wanted a better school system for their children, one of whom would soon be entering kindergarten.
Her husband raised concerns about their son being one of the few minority students in his new school, but Tucker brushed it off. But after a year of experiencing what she feels is a lack of diversity in her first-grader’s education, Tucker wants to make the school district aware of the issue and make sure students and staff are being taught to celebrate diversity.
Tucker hopes that by bringing more diversity and cultural awareness into the schools through education, students, parents and teachers will begin to better understand the struggles faced by minority families both today and in the past, as well as give minority students the opportunity to see themselves reflected in lessons.
“It’s hard to be indifferent or dismissive to someone when you know something about them or know their story,” Tucker said.
The curriculum would ideally include lessons on different cultures, different figures in history — preferably those of people of color — and maybe even some cultural day events.
Colleen Bernard, social studies curriculum specialist for secondary schools for FCPS, said there are no specific courses about people of color, but diversity is represented through the materials and resources used in all subjects by the school system.
“In teaching the curriculum, staff strive to incorporate various perspectives when presenting the material, including highlighting the different gender, racial, ethnic, social-economic, and other perspectives represented through the literature and lessons,” Bernard said in a statement.
Kevin Cuppett, executive director of curriculum, instruction and innovation, agreed. He said FCPS strives to make sure different voices are included in instructional material, such as with English courses.
“... making sure that our curriculum materials and the novels that we pick might have a variety of authorship, that people from diverse backgrounds are represented there and we’re not just reading material that’s, you know, Euro-centric and written by predominantly white people,” Cuppett said. “In the elementary [schools], that might manifest itself as having text in students’ hands where you see diverse kids in the pictures.”
He added, however, that sometimes it can be a challenge to find such an array.
“Sometimes we have a tough time finding material from a publisher that we think meets our equity view, and that just takes time and you have to work with it,” Cuppett said. “But more and more the publishers are kind of coming in line with the thinking of school districts.”
But Tucker wants diversity codified in the curriculum, and she hopes Women Solve will play a key role in getting it and staying on top of the school system.
The mission of Women Solve, she said, is to keep pushing for change. The group is made up of Tucker and other women, all Frederick residents. They have been working the past few months speaking with FCPS staff and other local organizations such as the Frederick County Branch of the NAACP to get the ball rolling.
Tucker said she wants to make sure that “we’re not sitting around another two, 10 years, 25 years to get this done. ... I want to see this done by next school term.”
Board of Education members Jay Mason and Michael Bunitsky agree that it should be looked at and more diversity should be considered, but they are unsure that it could be implemented by the 2020-21 school year. Tucker has brought her concerns to the two board members.
Curriculum writing is a long and tedious process. According to Cuppett, it can take up to two years. He said the planning portion would take a year alone, during which the curriculum team would identify standards for the course and instructional materials, and find the right instructor and school for the pilot class. It must then be approved by the Board of Education and the finishing touches put on in the summer before the pilot course is put into action.
For a course to be widely implemented across the district, it depends on the success of the pilot as well as the number of staff available.
Additionally, developed curriculums are based on grade level. One basic educational program focused on diversity could not be implemented as a blanket across the entire school system; lessons have to be developmentally appropriate. For example, some tough topics such as violence against minority groups might not be considered appropriate for an elementary schooler but could be taught in high school.
Tucker is worried, though, about taking too much time to get something in the books.
“I just don’t think people understand the long-term effects and the ramifications of just sitting on this issue without moving it forward,” she said.
Although implementing a new curriculum may take longer than Tucker would like, other aspects may be able to be incorporated more quickly, such as Frederick’s own history — something that older black residents of Frederick say was not taught when they were in school.
David Key, a member of AARCH — the African American Resources, Cultural Heritage Society of Frederick County — grew up when the county was segregated and is on board with such an idea. His schoolbooks did not feature any people of color, he said.
“To me, I think every kid in Frederick County could benefit from knowing what Frederick was like at one time,” Key said. “And you don’t even have to zero in on Frederick. You can certainly include Frederick, but that [race relations] was sort of a national thing. It happened all over.”
School board member Bunitsky agreed.
“You need to take [students] on a little local Frederick history tour to get them to recognize that the world needed to change, it has changed and it needs to continue on,” Bunitsky said.
Cuppett said there are already some aspects of Frederick’s own history taught through local and state history curriculums.
For Tuscarora High School history teacher Tyler Hanson, it’s not just about incorporating local history but also making sure false perceptions aren’t taught.
This summer he attended a workshop, “The Seat of War and Peace,” in Washington, D.C. Teachers from across the country gathered to examine and learn how the Civil War and Reconstruction have been remembered throughout American history.
Many aspects of post-Civil War history have been either glossed over or misconstrued, Hanson said. He specifically points to the myth of the lost cause which has attempted to portray Confederate soldiers in a positive light.
“It is ultimately misguided in that it portrays the Confederate cause as a noble one, when in reality, slaves were horribly mistreated,” Hanson said. “There’s also lots of violence against the African-American community that gets covered up post-Civil War.”
He said marginalized voices have often been lost in the versions of history that have been traditionally taught. Hanson feels it’s his responsibility to bring those voices back to the surface.
“History that makes us comfortable is nice, it’s cozy, it’s easy to remember, it makes us feel good ... but in actuality, history is a lot more complicated,” Hanson said. “It’s important to teach all perspectives. ... If I’m not teaching all voices, I’m teaching a lie.”
For Harris, this means bringing attention to the U.S. Colored Troops who served in the Civil War. She is particularly interested in that period of history, even spending time at Monocacy National Battlefield. When she was growing up, she said, this period was romanticized in her schooling. Contributions of black soldiers, including the approximately 500 from Frederick, were largely ignored.
And it’s not just about black and white history. Diversity means all cultures and aspects of learning.
Elizabeth Chung, executive director of the Asian American Center of Frederick, believes languages are an area where there could be more diversity. She has proposed that the school system look at after-school programs where students can learn different languages beyond what is offered in the set curriculum.
She also sees a need for more cultural awareness programs such as an exchange student program to bring students from different countries to Frederick County schools. Chung says students need more global exposure to learn what the world offers outside of the United States. With those steps, students will learn to be more accepting and respectful of differences, Chung said.
“I always say I’m Chinese. My Chinese heart is just as good as others if they need me to donate [it] to them,” she said. “My blood is just as good as any other if they want blood for emergencies. I think looking at the similarities more than looking at differences helps our students see the importance of humanity.”
Specifically, in the current FCPS curriculum, Chung said she does not think Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern or South American history is taught enough. There’s Asian American History Month in May, but she wants students to learn about other holidays as well. Like Key, she said she does not believe Asian history should be kept to just one month.
Moving forward, Women Solve may have a partner in getting a more diversity-focused curriculum.
On June 12, the Board of Education voted to approve the formation of a Racial Equity Committee. Right now, the Racial Equity Committee will likely look at the achievement gap among minority students and how to close it, as well as disproportionate suspension rates among students of color, but it could be an avenue for examining and implementing a new curriculum or specific courses as Tucker suggests.
School Superintendent Terry Alban said she hopes the committee will help direct future policy.
“What I expect is that this committee will ... make suggestions to the board for policies that they feel are needed, make the board aware of issues in the community that maybe we have or hadn’t heard about,” Alban said.
Applications for membership on the Racial Equity Committee will be accepted until Sept. 9. The goal, according to a press release, is to appoint up to 15 members from across the county with different backgrounds to represent a variety of communities. There is also an emphasis to include people of color.
Bunitsky said after the school board appoints members, bylaws for the committee will be drafted and the committee will begin working on tasks from the board as well as taking public comment.
Bunitsky said he hopes the work of the committee will lead to expanded knowledge about diversity.
“You need to have resources channeled into a problem or an issue in order to expand knowledge of that area. ... I’m hoping this committee will be able to provide information to the board so that the board gets to ask the right questions,” Bunitsky said. “I want this committee to work.”
The Board of Education will receive its first progress update from the newly formed Racial Equity Committee once the bylaws have been drafted.
In the meantime, Cuppett said the curriculum-writing team has been tasked with a renewed focus on equity.
“We are developing a yearlong approach to lensing all of our work from an equity perspective. We do that regularly, but we are a continuous improvement system and so we’re actually laying out a work plan for the year for us to have a renewed focus,” Cuppett said.
All agreed there is always the need for more and Cuppett said he is glad parents such as Tucker are pushing for that.
“I think the call for equity and diverse perspectives in education is one that many districts are working through across the nation, it’s a national conversation ... so the fact that we have parents that are interested in this ... it almost validates that this is important work,” he said.
“This is a legacy of our country that people have been grappling with for a long time,” she said. “We are always open to looking at new ideas and new ways to truly make every student know that they are valued and loved by the Frederick County public school system.”