The Student Led Victory of Public Act No. 19-12
As students become more and more involved in the running of their schools, one often hears of the disappointments and losses these students endure at the hands of out-of-touch policy makers. The same can’t be said of the Connecticut students who championed Public Act No.19-12, mandating high schools across the state to offer courses in Black, Latino, and Puerto Rican studies. To be enforced by the fall of 2022, the bill, proposed by the state legislature comes after roughly two years of heightened racial and political tensions. Many view it as a very impactful way to educate and empower marginalized youth in the state, one educator mentioned she believes students are often “bogged down with curriculum, and some of that curriculum does not include people of color, (Kountz, 2021).” At face value, this bill meets the needs some students claim to have, educates those who are completely unaware of the trials and tribulations marginalized communities face, and aims to empower all students to answer a call and fight for social justice.
Many news outlets reported on the passing of this bill because of its “first-in-the-nation” nature (Kountz, 2021), as Connecticut is the first state in the country to officially make ethnic studies such a requirement. These same news outlets left out other key aspects of the bill including, but not limited to, career and consumer education, cardiopulmonary resuscitation training (CPR), disease prevention, safe use of social media, dangers of gang membership, citizenship, economics, as well as Holocaust and genocide education and awareness (Connecticut Public Act 19-12, 2021). The Connecticut State Board of Education, the last obstacle for the requirement, voted unanimously to implement it, no one objected, on the board or otherwise. (Governor Lamont Announces Connecticut Becomes First State in Nation To Require High Schools Provide Courses on Black and Latino Studies 2020). After and during a tense period of history, Connecticut policy makers of all levels heard community activists, students, and educators, and responded.
It is important to note that this initiative was a triumph of youth activism and its implementation was something both students and educators were both advocating for. Thanks to its promotion by the Black and Hispanic Caucus, the initiative was adopted and pushed through the approval process. The State organized a 150-member advisory group, composed of 9 committees dedicated to: Research and Analysis, Focus Groups, Infrastructure Supports, Course Syllabus, two focused on Content Development, Integration and Assessment, Publications and Dissemination, and Professional Learning Plan (District Information Session, 2020). This analysis will focus solely on contextualizing the ethnic studies initiative being implemented, consisting of “ten comprehensive units” divided into a “two-pronged, inquiry-based approach” full year course, one semester dedicated to Black and African American studies and another focusing on Puerto Rican and Latino studies, rather than the other components of the bill mentioned previously. (District Information Session, 2020). Connecticut State Senator Douglas McCrory (D-Hartford), a man of color, educator, and administrator emphasized that in both Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month, students get only a few names and important dates, but these yearlong courses will go beyond that, dig deeper, prepare them to be 21st century citizens, and members of their community (NBC Connecticut, 2021).
Concerning its intent, Governor Ned Lamont notes that, “Increasing the diversity of what we teach is critical to providing students with a better understanding of who we are as a society and where we are going,” the Governor went on to say, “Adding this course in our high schools will be an enormous benefit not only to our Black and Latino students, but to students of all backgrounds because everyone can benefit from these studies.” And finally added that, “this is a step that is long overdue, (Governor Lamont Announces Connecticut Becomes First State in Nation To Require High Schools Provide Courses on Black and Latino Studies 2020)”. Students will see themselves reflected in the curriculum throughout their high schools, allies, prospective allies, and educators will be afforded the opportunity to reflect and learn about the identities of their peers, and this initiative works as a giant first step in addressing the injustices faced by marginalized communities.
Of youth activists who fought for ethnic studies in Arizona, Cabrera et al. (2013) wrote, “The organizers […] were not only racially and socially economically oppressed, but they were also marginalized due to their age. […] From the perspective of urban education, this means that youth should be represented when educational decisions made that affect their lives (Cabrera et al., 2013, p. 20-21).” This statement emphasizes the emotions of teenagers in Connecticut and the driving force behind the initiative; as one teen told a 2019 Education Committee Public Hearing “[b]eing both Black and Puerto Rican, I know very little about my histories other than the fact that slaves and genocide were involved in both, (Kountz, 2021)” and finally students just like them have been heard.
The Constitution State’s high school students weren’t the only vocal advocates, teachers, legislators, and community leaders all supported the notion. Senator McCrory, who introduced the legislation and co-chair of the Committee on Education said, “It was a humbling experience to hear students passionately call for the Black and Latino studies curriculum, and I thank them for it. Nelson Mandela once said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,’ and I hope this new curriculum will facilitate a greater understanding and appreciation of the many contributions made by Black and Latino Americans (Governor Lamont Announces Connecticut Becomes First State in Nation To Require High Schools Provide Courses on Black and Latino Studies 2020).” There were no objections of the policy in the state and despite false narratives concerning anti-American sentiment and other racist generalizations opponents of similar policies have utilized in states like Arizona, the Connecticut General Assembly lent bipartisan support, for even lawmakers, as removed as they can be, knew the impact would be overwhelmingly positive.
Multicultural education founder and pioneer James A. Banks debated ethnic studies opponent Linda Chavez, who argued American history is the proper substitute for ethnic studies (Banks, 2012). Banks wrote:
“This is a false dichotomy because ethnic studies is an integral part of US history and we cannot accurately teach the American story unless we teach about the ways in which it has been shaped and influenced by American ethnic groups – and how ethnic groups in the USA have both shaped and been shaped by their experiences in America. (Banks, 2012, p. 468).”
Banks touches on an impact that can’t be held back by the location or demographic make-up of a school. Whether the school be rural, urban, or suburban, full of immigrants, Black students, or White students and it is thanks to sections within the Act that the majority of these statuses and statistics are irrelevant. When it comes to Connecticut’s policy of ethnic studies and its impact, Sec. 2 of the Act mentions that the boards of education throughout the state can utilize materials whether they be public or private, bring in personnel and other resources, and accept gifts, donations, as well as grants to implement the curriculum (Connecticut Public Act No. 19-12, 2021). The Act also calls for annual evaluations of the curriculum to ensure that it meets the standards, and each district has what it needs to continue offering the courses (Connecticut Public Act No. 19-12, 2021). These provisions will help, as Banks later reiterated, recognize, value, publicly affirm, and thoughtfully examine the very diverse identities (Banks, 2012) of Connecticut students.
Overall, after examining the views of educators, lawmakers, and of course students, the policy is a great success. Its impact on the lives of marginalized students, especially those Black and Latino who make up roughly thirty percent of Connecticut’s students (Governor Lamont Announces Connecticut Becomes First State in Nation To Require High Schools Provide Courses on Black and Latino Studies, 2020) will be extremely beneficial. The State Department of Education released a number of recommended infrastructures supports, many working to support the initiative. Some recommendations included were ensuring there was access for all and multiple pathways for learning, partnering with families and communities, establishing a “safe space” atmosphere in the classroom, continuously working to improve approach and content, and establishing staff best fit to teach the course with a shared responsibility amongst themselves (Connecticut Public Act No. 19-12. An Act Concerning the Inclusion of Black and Latino Studies in the Public School Curriculum, 2020).
Despite not having clear instruction, the State is allowing schools to be flexible with their approach and this can serve as an added strength or weakness. One would hope districts will utilize multiple pathways for learning to open spaces to students with disabilities and special needs but until the policy is officially enacted, no data will be available regarding implementation plans until July of 2021. Another area the Act fails to address is professional development. In Connecticut, over 90% of students are Black and Hispanic whereas roughly 70% of their teachers are White (Gais et al., 2019). Whereas Black and Hispanic educators can speak from lived experiences and connect with their students, White educators just can’t. Fernandez (2019) points out that:
“Research suggests that Ethnic Studies teachers who engage in professional development to strengthen their knowledge of Ethnic Studies pedagogy (Tintiangco-Cubales et al., 2015) are more effective than those who don’t. Thus, opportunities for training in this area are critical for teachers, their students, and their school districts to successfully implement and deliver Ethnic Studies programs (Fernandez, 2019, p. 187).”
The fact that the Connecticut policy is missing such a crucial piece of a multicultural education is a huge weakness, and one likely to be address in the months and years to follow after its implementation in the 2022 school year.
In the words of now U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, “This curriculum acknowledges that by connecting the story of people of color in the U.S. to the larger story of American history. The fact is that more inclusive, culturally relevant content in classrooms leads to greater student engagement and better outcomes for all”(Governor Lamont Announces Connecticut Becomes First State in Nation To Require High Schools Provide Courses on Black and Latino Studies 2020). As a graduate of a Connecticut public high school, this policy initiative is very impactful and one can only imagine how the rising students of Connecticut public schools will feel when they’re offered the opportunity to learn their own unique history, not from a grandparent’s house, a library, or museum, but their classroom. One high ranking education official noted the engagement of an inquiry process and the manner in which these courses will absolutely ask students how they can take informed action and what they will do with the information they’ve unraveled and discovered through their own inquiry and reflection (Kountz, 2021). The possibilities are undeniably endless.