‘Our students are being empowered’: Norwalk school pilots new Black and Latino history course

The history of Puerto Ricans and their contributions to the history of the United States will be a part of the new Black and Latino history course.

The history of Puerto Ricans and their contributions to the history of the United States will be a part of the new Black and Latino history course.

Autumn Driscoll / ST

NORWALK — A new social studies course is giving high school students the opportunity to dive deeper into the history of the Black and Latino experience.

P-TECH is one of about 55 high schools in Connecticut piloting the course that the state will require all high schools to offer next fall. It’s a full-year course and teaches African American/Black history the first semester and Puerto Rican/Latino history the second.

P-TECH assistant instructional leader Renita Crawford and social studies department chair Cecile St. Jean presented an update on the implementation of the new course to members of the Norwalk Board of Education’s curriculum committee on Nov. 17.

St. Jean started teaching the course to two classes this fall, 39 students total. The high-level course is geared toward junior and senior students, but several sophomores were accepted. Crawford said she was surprised to fill two sections given class scheduling had already began when the course was introduced as a history elective.

“The fact that we have two sections is amazing. The students chose the course on the description and hearing about it. We really didn’t have a need to promote it. It was more word of mouth,” Crawford said during the committee meeting.

The focus on African American/Black history has six units, and the focus on Puerto Rican/Latino history has five. So far, students in St. Jean’s classes have received an introduction to African origins and the ancient African empires covering the time of 500 B.C. to 1600.

The second unit moves into the arrival of the first slaves in America in 1619, but the focus is on enslaved and free African Americans and their resistance and agency over the next 200 years.

At the beginning of the course, St. Jean thought it was “really important” to develop a classroom culture, given the class was going to cover difficult subjects. She and the students came up with a social contract and discussion norms to inform students how they should “respect each other and honor everyone’s voice and opinion,” according to St. Jean.

“It’s important to establish a strong classroom culture before having those discussions,” the social studies chair said.

Crawford added, “Our students are being exposed to high level, rigorous and engaging texts. It’s a lot of different texts used that St. Jean has to use and scaffold for students to access, but they find them engaging because there’s lot of primary sources and some real scholarly work that the students are being exposed to on a high school level.”

Connecticut became the first state in the nation to require high schools to provide courses on Black and Latino studies when Gov. Ned Lamont signed Public Act 19-12 in June 2019. The legislation directed all regional and local school boards to include an elective course to provide high school students with a better understanding of African American, Black, Puerto Rican and Latino contributions to United States history, society, economy and culture.

The state legislature designated the State Education Resource Center to provide schools with technical assistance and training to implement the program. SERC consulted with scholars, university professors and teachers in developing the course and making sure the topics of study aligned with the existing social studies curriculum and standards.

Students were also given a voice to express what they wanted to see in the course.

“They talked up identity. I want to see who I am in this class,” said Nitza Diaz, a consultant with SERC. “Our students are being empowered to talk about who they are and why they do what they do, to ensure that when they leave high school ... they feel like they have a voice and they belong.”

The pilot course at P-TECH is being offered as an elective but nothing prevents Norwalk Public Schools from making the history course a requirement when it implements the new curriculum across the district next year.

Through more than two units of study, St. Jean said she has seen high engagement from her students. They have enjoyed learning about history through a different lens and seeing themselves represented unlike in their previous history classes, she said. So far, she added, they’ve most enjoyed learning about the early African empires, a topic rarely broached in high school U.S. or world history classes.

“They said that was one of their favorite units so far because it was so engaging and eye-opening for them,” St. Jean said.

Sherelle Harris, chair of the curriculum committee, said she was proud to see the history of Black Americans pre-slavery. She also appreciated hearing that students were supporting each other in learning about other cultures.

“For a lot of students, that’s all they hear is slavery as if history started there,” Harris said.

She also applauded Crawford and St. Jean for enlisting the help of The Blues and Beyond program to collaborate on a class project next month. The organization will help students create and record their own blues songs about African American history.

“It’s going to be really, really awesome,” St. Jean said.