More than a decade ago, New Jersey became one of the first states to pass a law calling for school districts to infuse African-American history into their social studies curriculum.
During the past three years, 584 school districts, universities and libraAdd Newries statewide have linked to the curriculum provided on the Amistad Commission’s website, the state says. InBergen County, 82 districts, colleges and charters have registered to access the curriculum, and in Passaic County that number is 25. And teachers are encouraged to attend training sessions on how to integrate black history into their regular lessons. In the past year, 2,000 teachers have participated.
But William D. Payne, who wrote the Amistad Commission legislation while he was a Democratic assemblyman from Newark, says he’s worried that it’s mainly African-Americans who are following the law. Based on more than a dozen training sessions that he has attended — including the annual statewide institute — and conversations he’s had, more than 90 percent of the attendees have been black, he estimates.
“It took four years for it to pass, and now we are in 2013 and it’s still being treated like a stepchild,” said Payne, a five-term assemblyman until 2008. “There is no commitment by the Department of Education to finally teach the truth of the country.”
A spokesman for the Department of Education said the current core curriculum standards for social studies include aspects of the Amistad Commission’s model curriculum. Furthermore, state monitors check whether schools are complying with the law during annual visits, said Richard Vespucci, the spokesman. He said local curriculums, lesson plans and other documentation are reviewed during those visits.
“Our experience has been when that documentation has been lacking or when the district is found to be struggling in trying to comply with the law, local school officials will usually reach out to the Amistad Commission before the state monitors do,” Vespucci wrote in an email.
As Black History Month gets under way, proponents of the Amistad Act stress that the contributions of black Americans should be discussed year-round to supplement textbooks that traditionally focus on slavery, the Civil War and the civil rights movement.
North Jersey educators who have integrated the Amistad curriculum say their students are getting a truer representation of history.
Ron Romano, district supervisor of social studies for the Northern Valley Regional High School District, said: “A lot of time we get edicts from the state that are impossible to do or don’t really have a real purpose. This legislation is perfect, because I think it would do a disservice if we only honor African-Americans one month; this is all part of our culture.”
Fredrick Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, said the Department of Education should collect data on who is complying with the law for better enforcement.
“Legislators need to know if the state bureaucracy is doing its job, and the state bureaucracy needs to contact school districts to see if they are doing the job,” he said.
Payne said that while he welcomes the attendance of black teachers at training sessions, many more districts with different demographics should be participating.
“They just don’t see the positive impact it will have for black students and white students alike,” he said. “When I was going to school, I got the impression that all the slaves did during the Civil War was stand on the sidelines while these white guys went off to the war to fight for our freedom. The fact is that we fought in the war, too. But you are left with the impression that blacks did nothing, period.”
The Amistad Commission created the Amistad Act, which was signed into law in 2002. The 19-member board (on which Payne still sits) was charged with developing a model curriculum to ensure black history is adequately taught in all facets of American history.
The law was named after the schooner La Amistad, which was taken over in 1839 by the enslaved Africans it was carrying.
Other states that have adopted similar legislation include New York, Illinois, Arkansas, Colorado and Florida, according to the Education Commission of the States, a non-partisan, non-profit organization based in Colorado.
New York, which created its commission in 2005, was slow to implement its law, and that commission did not hold its first meeting for years after its formation, according to news reports.
North Jersey social studies supervisors and school superintendents said they are implementing the law, even though some of them acknowledged they still depend on Black History Month to concentrate on those studies.
“Our focus in terms of black history is February,” said Ridgefield interim Superintendent of Schools Harry Groveman, who joined the district in August. “I think the teachers infuse and talk about and make connections throughout the school year, but I would be hard pressed to give you specifics. You would hope that they do that.”
Other school officials said they hadn’t sent teachers to learn how to better merge the law’s objectives into their lessons.
South Hackensack Schools Superintendent William DeFabiis, whose wife served on the Amistad Commission when it was first formed, said he doesn’t remember receiving information about the training sessions. But he said he’d be happy to attend or send staff, and suggested Payne talk to the county superintendents about the law.
“That would be a great forum to get the word out,” DeFabiis said. “You would be hearing it right from the person who is passionate about it; that to me would be meaningful.”
Over at the Northern Valley Regional High School District, Romano said he and other educators attended training conferences two years in a row after the legislation was passed to better understand the mandates. Since then, inclusion of the African-American experience in lessons is the norm, he said.
Teachers in Paterson are urged to tap into information found in informational databases about African-Americans to supplement textbooks, said Nick Vancheri, interim principal for School 7. The teachers have database access to also include information about the Hispanic, and Native Indian experience in history and in other subject areas, added Vancheri, who was the district’s K-12 social studies supervisor until December.
The district’s International High School has a black history course, and younger students communicate with pupils in Ghana to gain a world perspective, he said.
“We really meet the needs of our diverse city with our curriculum, especially with social studies,” Vancheri said.
Payne continues to visit local libraries to study the influences of blacks in history. He’s quick to drop dozens of facts he has found along the way. Like the one about the black navigator who accompanied Christopher Columbus, or that African-Americans fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War.
“I say that you can’t teach social studies without infusing the role and contributions of African-Americans,” he said, adding he plans to push for similar federal legislation. “And until that happens, I will continue to try and convince and enlighten the state of New Jersey and other states of the importance of implementing the truthful teachings of the history of this country.”