How suburban educators are responding to state's call for culturally inclusive instruction
As a result of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement last year after the death of George Floyd, the state of Illinois is working with school districts in the suburbs and across the state to change the way Black history is taught in classrooms.
It's part of a broader state effort to make curriculum more culturally inclusive to reflect diverse student populations, including changing the way Black, Latino and Asian history and literature is taught.
Meanwhile, the state has adopted new Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards to prepare future educators to teach diverse students.
The new standards, which take effect in 2025, aim to foster classroom and school environments in which all students feel a sense of belonging.
But they have sparked controversy among Republican legislators, who argue the rules would require licensed teachers and administrators to adhere to a particular political ideology. They view it as an attempt to push liberal politics in the classroom.
"It takes teachers and it puts them in a position to become advocates for a particular political agenda," said Republican rules committee member Rep. Steve Reick of Woodstock last month. "There is a lot of resistance to turning teachers into advocates for particular political viewpoints."
ISBE officials counter that the rule aims to make teachers more mindful of how their own biases and perceptions affect their teaching. And, regardless of the politics over the rule, many local districts note that the diversity of their teaching ranks is not keeping up with increasing diversity among their student bodies.
More than 52% of Illinois students identify as students of color, and English Learners are the fastest growing student population. Yet, the state's teacher workforce is more than 82% white.
"I never encountered a Black man as a teacher," said Marcus Belin, principal of Huntley High School who is Black and is part of the Illinois State Board of Education's Black History Curriculum Task Force.
Belin said he became an educator so he could be a role model for Black boys and girls, and he is focused on changing school culture so minority students feel more welcome.
Huntley High's student population is 74% white, 12% Hispanic, nearly 7% Asian and 2% Black. Leaders at Huntley are working on a plan to recognize students' cultural diversity year-round, having monthly events celebrating them and highlighting literary works by minority authors. They also are considering creating affinity groups supporting different cultures, such as Black and gay student alliances, to give students a voice.
Belin said Black history should be taught in the context of current social realities.
"In schools now, we are still talking about slavery. That was 200 years ago," Belin said. "That's not changing kids' perceptions about ... social justice. Let's talk about protests. It needs to be more contemporary. Kids go to school and wonder 'Why am I learning this?'"
Some districts are looking to students for input on improving school climate.
Elgin Area School District U-46 will roll out an equity survey Monday to assess students' sense of belonging, cultural awareness, and diversity and inclusion efforts.
The district is developing a Latinx studies elective course that will be available to high school seniors in Spanish as part of the dual language program this fall and a high school African American studies elective course for the 2022-23 school year.
Nearly 400 students weighed in on what they would like to see included in African American studies. The district also has brought in an educational consultant to help write the curriculum, said Teresa Lance, assistant superintendent for equity and innovation at U-46.
Lance said the district has begun training teachers -- nearly 71% white, 25% Hispanic and roughly 2% Black and Asian -- on culturally responsive teaching practices. U-46's student population is 55% Hispanic, nearly 26% white, 8% Asian and 6% Black.
"The first thing is being aware of the biases that we hold," she said. "And when those biases actually start showing up in terms of stereotypes or inhibiting us from addressing the cultural needs of our students. That's when it becomes problematic."
Helping teachers overcome their apprehensions about teaching culturally sensitive material is part of the issue, said Adrian Harries, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300.
Nearly 90% of the district's teachers are white, while the student body is 46% white, 39% Hispanic, 6% Asian and 5% Black.
This fall, the district is rolling out two new courses (with five more coming the following school year) in English language arts and social studies aimed at promoting understanding of Black and Latinx cultures. It is working to diversify materials for middle and high schools and expects to train teachers over the summer.
"Oftentimes, teachers don't want to dive into a text that's culturally relevant but might have some topics they're just not familiar in covering," Harries said. "It's hard to know how to educate somebody around something that you haven't experienced and you don't have firsthand knowledge of."
Increasing teacher diversity through minority recruitment is one way to address inequities, said Martin DaCosta, principal of Winston Campus Jr. High School in Palatine.
The school's students are 68% Hispanic, nearly 19% white, nearly 6% Asian and 4% Black. Across Palatine Township Elementary District 15, 88% of teachers are white, nearly 9% are Hispanic, and nearly 3% are Asian.
DaCosta's school has a more diverse teaching corps than the district as a whole.
"We reach out to alumni, kids that have recently graduated from college who went through our schools, grew up in our neighborhoods, had a connection to the community," DaCosta said. "One of the things that we believe in is that representation matters."
DaCosta said teachers have been incorporating curriculum materials in different languages and offering varying perspectives. Students also have input in book selections that validate and affirm their identities.
"We are also intentional about highlighting people in STEM, politics and history who come from underrepresented minorities ... so that every kid regardless of background is able to see themselves in the curriculum," DaCosta said.