In October 2019, Zyeria Johnson, a senior at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College (DMLK), visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and for the first time, she recognized that her Denver Public Schools (DPS) education hadn’t taught her what she most needed to know. “It was eye-opening,” says Johnson, who is heading to Jackson State University, a historically Black college in Jackson, Mississippi, this month. “I was appalled and shocked to discover that after years of sitting in classrooms for seven hours a day, I never learned about the civil rights movement, or about Black history. But you cannot teach American history without Black history.”
Johnson had traveled from Denver to D.C. with 17 other Black students and seven faculty from DMLK, a grades six through 12 school in Denver’s Gateway – Green Valley Ranch neighborhood with a student body that’s 59 percent Latino, 25 percent Black, seven percent Asian, and four percent white. The students and teachers studied exhibits that evoked the horrors of slave ships and beatings administered by enslavers; they reflected on the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till and how it was a haunting, terrifying reminder that racial injustice didn’t end with slavery.
The students also took in works about former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, “two individuals who make me feel inspired to stand up and be who I am today,” says Dahni Austin, who was a DMLK freshman when she went to Washington. Filled with a surge of pride and a newfound sense of solidarity as Black Americans, the students vowed to bring the enlightenment back home. “We thought: If this is how we feel by being exposed to Black history, imagine how much greatness we could get in our community if we could bring this back to Denver,” says Jenelle Nangah, who will start her senior year at DMLK this month. It was then that they resolved to change the way DPS schools cover Black heritage—at DMLK and beyond.
Kimberly Grayson, DMLK’s principal, who is Black, agreed to back her students—though she admits she worried about repercussions. “No one likes to talk about [Black] race,” she says. “It’s a very uncomfortable conversation, and my staff is mostly white. Once terms like ‘hostile work environment’ start to get used, principals can be placed on leave.”
She believed, however, that her seven years of leadership at DMLK (the 2020-’21 school year will be Grayson’s eighth year as principal) had established a foundation of trust and collaboration with school staff that was mature enough to support an inquiry into racial equity. Grayson subsequently funded, via the school’s budget, a November 2019 trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture for DMLK’s history teachers, all of whom are white.
The principal also arranged opportunities for the students to meet with district administrators. In January and February of this year, the students presented their requests for curriculum reform to the DPS board, asking officials to increase the teaching of Black history across all schools and all grades. The appeal came in the wake of earlier criticisms that DPS’ curriculum was too white-centric. In fall 2019, Stacy Parrish, a member of the Klamath Tribes and principal of Northeast Early College, a high school in the Montbello neighborhood, took issue with assignments that denigrated Native Americans—or overlooked tribal histories and perspectives altogether. DPS came to the same conclusions after its own unrelated 2019 curriculum audits revealed a lack of diversity and equity.
The DMLK teachers returned from D.C. with ideas for Black history units that will be implemented across all grade levels at DMLK in the 2020-’21 school year. New lessons will highlight Black activist Marcus Garvey and the “Black Wall Street” that flourished in Tulsa, Oklahoma, until rioting whites razed that commercial district in 1921 and murdered Black Americans. Sixth graders will study the African kingdoms and the Middle Passage; eighth graders will learn about Black heroes from the Revolutionary and Civil wars; and structural racism will now be the driving force of the 11th graders’ government and constitution unit (rather than being an adjunct topic, as it had been).
These updates were developed by DMLK teachers and will be taught at that school only. Developing a racially balanced curriculum for the entire school district, with consistent standards that apply to all schools, is a larger undertaking. It’s further frustrated by a lack of teacher resources, says Tamara Acevedo, who oversees DPS’ curriculum as deputy superintendent of academics. Facing History and Ourselves, a national nonprofit that develops teaching materials on racism and other societal injustices, has advised DPS in the past, Acevedo says, but is now “busy working with other districts.”
Across the country, demand for racially and ethnically diverse curricula is surging, but the supply hasn’t kept pace. As DPS acquires resources for teaching Black history and that of other minority groups, it still needs to fine-tune consistent processes for curricula revisions, Acevedo says. Spanning 162 schools, DPS is a slow-steering supertanker—which also happens to be facing a significant budget deficit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regardless, Acevedo adds, “the students at DMLK were instrumental in bringing to light where our Black history is not well represented. They truly have been the catalyst for change.”
The DMLK students’ appeal specifically addresses the history of Black Americans, not all people of color. “That’s not to diminish other races,” Grayson says. “But often, when you bring up Black history, people want to bring in all people of color from all backgrounds.” Broadening the focus may be inclusive, but it can also deflect attention and support away from the topic of Black history, Grayson argues. “When people raise money for breast cancer, they’re not automatically asked to address prostate or pancreatic cancer. It’s not an either/or situation.”
Tay Anderson, one of two Black members of the DPS Board of Education who’s also been instrumental in leading the local Black Lives Matter protests, agrees with Grayson. “People need to know the real history of this country,” says Anderson, who graduated from Denver’s Manual High School. “I didn’t have that opportunity in class to learn about my history as a Black man.”
Upcoming students will. Having purchased teaching texts about Black, Latino American, and American Indian experiences from ABC-CLIO, an academic publishing company, the district has revised the eighth and 10th grade U.S. history curricula to include texts by journalist Ida B. Wells and civil rights activist and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The study of Reconstruction now extends through the Black Lives Matter movement.
Acevedo says the district is in the process of selecting a more ethnically diverse, culturally responsive social studies curriculum for grades K–5 and will soon review 11th grade civics and economics courses. The district also plans to integrate feedback from external reviewers who evaluated the eighth grade’s U.S. history programming. Efforts are already underway to train Denver’s predominantly white teachers to be sensitive about their own biases and to “develop culturally responsive and anti-racist instructional practices.” This past spring, as a result of the DMLK students’ efforts to diversify the curriculum, Acevedo says an initial wave of DPS teachers attended seminars designed to “support teachers’ understanding of race membership and civil discourse.”
The students are building on their success with a new podcast called “Know Justice, Know Peace, DMLK’s ‘The Take.’” Launched on July 4, the podcast features a rotating cast of student hosts and will sometimes welcome guests. The episodes are designed to take Black history beyond school walls to a larger audience. “We want [the podcast] to benefit other people,” Nangah says, “so they have a place to go to learn about themselves.” Because, Nangah says, stories define us—for better or worse. By learning history, you can change the present. “Without your history, you’re lost, and you end up looking for who you are in the stereotypes you hear about Blacks being thugs and criminals. Often, it seems like our goals are not attainable,” Nangah says. “But when you know the worth within your voice and yourself, you can accomplish so many great things. That’s what we’re doing.”