AUSTIN — Dallas ISD’s African American Studies course is closer to becoming a statewide elective, despite some concerns that it could present a “watered-down” history.
The State Board of Education will vote Friday on standards for districts to offer the course as an elective social studies class for high school students. While discussing amendments to the standards at a Tuesday meeting, the board mostly offered minor edits, but some members raised questions about the scope of the course.
If the amendments are approved on Friday, the course will stay on track to become Texas’ second ethnic studies course. The first, focusing on Mexican American Studies, gained statewide approval in 2018 after four years of controversy over its creation, textbook material and naming.
But the African American Studies course has garnered widespread support, and the board signaled in November that it intends to give it final approval in April, so it can be adopted by other districts as soon as next fall.
The course is being taught in 16 Dallas ISD schools for the first time this academic year, according to Shalon Bond, director of social studies for the district. The Dallas ISD curriculum focuses on contributions of African civilizations and African Americans beyond the context of slavery or the civil rights movement.
“God bless MLK, God bless Malcolm X, God bless all those names we hear all the time because they obviously were trailblazers, but we knew there were trails blazed before them as well,” said Jamila Thomas, who spearheaded the course’s creation as the former director of DISD’s Racial Equity Office.
The statewide standards written by Dallas ISD staff with input from an advisory committee of experts require students to explore influences from pre-colonial Africans and African Americans throughout history. It also dives deeper into the historic and modern impact of state and federal policies on African Americans in addition to discussing slavery and the Civil War.
Most of the board’s edits to the standards on Tuesday focused on clarifying or broadening language. For example, they voted to change language requiring students to analyze the influence of Harriet Tubman to instead have students analyze the Underground Railroad more broadly.
“Since we brought in the Underground Railroad, we took out Harriet Tubman because she’s a part of it, but it was more than her,” Bond said.
But discussion during a public hearing centered on how many figures students should be required to know.
The nonprofit Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services asked for the board to consider adding seven more notable figures in the areas of environmental justice.
“It is important for students to understand the changes and continuity in African American history and be presented with the opportunity to explore the legacy and the influence of scholars, activists and community leaders,” said Nalleli Hidalgo, education liaison for the nonprofit.
Tom Maynard, a Florence Republican, asked if additions to the course would be “too much” for teachers to teach in one year.
“If we continually add things to the standards, we wind up where we wind up with a lot of social studies courses where the sheer volume of the content really precludes us from teaching the depth,” he said.
Marisa Perez-Diaz, a Converse Democrat, asked her fellow board members to consider all suggestions for additions to the standards.
“For a very, very long time these histories haven’t been included in social studies,” she said.
Lawrence Allen Jr., a Democrat representing Houston, said he has received questions about whether “more revolutionary” African American figures will be cut out in an attempt to broaden the standards.
“There is a great fear in Houston … that we are presenting a watered-down course on African American Studies,” Allen said. “They feel like those who are more revolutionary may not be as included because we want to kind of appease others in the course.”
Thomas assured Allen input from Houston community members had been included in drafting the state standards.
“To your point about it being watered down, at least we have the water,” she said.
Bond said teachers could be provided with a list of optional figures to discuss in addition to required ones, but she added that the goal of the course is to set students on a path to explore more on their own.
“I agree that some of this will be an introduction, but it should also light a fire to want to know more because they’re learning about themselves,” she said.