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Decatur School Board discusses decolonizing the curriculum

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Decatur School Board discusses decolonizing the curriculum

City Schools of Decatur School Board from left, James Herndon (vice chair), Dr. Carmen Sulton, Jana Johnson-Davis (chair), Superintendent Dr. Maggie Fehrman, Tasha White and Hans Utz. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Decatur, GA — The City Schools of Decatur School Board, at its Nov. 29 work session, discussed what it would mean to decolonize the curriculum in CSD and how that could happen.

“Decolonizing means identifying ways in which schools structurally reproduce colonial patterns, then confronting, challenging and rejecting the status quo, and putting alternative roads in place for the benefit of academic integrity and social welcoming,”  said Anthony Downer, equity coordinator. “A decolonized curriculum starts with acknowledging that students’ identities are linked to structural inequities within society.”

Decolonizing the curriculum is about rethinking, reframing, and reconstructing the current curriculum and expanding notions of educational content, so it doesn’t always elevate one voice, one experience, and one way of being in the world, Downer said.

This effort is happening across all grade levels and content areas and will look different at each school.

As an example, Downer shared that when he taught world history, he extended his comparative lessons on China’s Golden Age across time to show progress and domination.

“We de-centered Europe during the Middle Ages by bringing in a focus on other cultures and societies during the same time period, not just to show that low point but the high point of other locations,” he said. “The result was more inclusive and less Eurocentric instruction. Every time we talked about Europe for the rest of the semester, global context mattered. The standards we taught didn’t change as much as the resources, criticality, representation, engagement and joy to how we taught.”

He added that decolonizing is also about how students read traditional mainstream texts and it’s about what is celebrated and how.

CSD has been working to decolonize its curriculum through various initiatives such as the equity in education task force, the social studies task force and the equity in assessments task force. The work began with Beyond Diversity, which gave CSD a common language and process to use to be able to discuss race, racism and other factors that are engaged in decolonizing the curriculum, Equity Director Mari Ann Banks said.

“A curriculum that misrepresents history or does not introduce opportunities for students to engage positively in their own learning is a disservice to students,” Banks previously said. “However unintended the consequences of such a curriculum, maybe disengagement, lack of connection, low self-esteem.”

The district has also been using the racial equity tool, which is a series of questions asked when making financial and policy decisions regarding students. The tool is used for purchasing curriculum and making decisions around curriculum.

In 2020-2021, school equity teams were developed and are currently doing an internal review of social studies resources.

“We know that a lot of the time when we have problems emerge or things happen that are hurtful to populations it happens in social studies, so let’s look at the curriculum, let’s look at the resources, let’s look at what’s being used in social studies and really discuss and process something better, put something better in its place,” Banks said.

CSD has also created a K-12 social studies curriculum review committee that’s made up of teachers, instructional coaches and parents. The committee’s charge this school year is to evaluate the K-12 social studies curriculum from a culturally responsive lens. The evaluation is phase one, and the next phase will focus on discussing decolonizing the curriculum.

Director of English Language Arts and Social Studies Courtney Simon said that culturally responsive education refers to “the combination of teaching pedagogy, curriculum, theory, attitudes, practices and instructional materials that centers students’ culture, identity and context through educational systems.”

In 2021, the district also worked with a Decatur High School student advisory team to learn about the students’ experience with curriculum.

“When we talked with the students about their curriculum, they specifically asked us to do more work toward decolonization. They said they wanted to hear other voices in the classroom. They also asked for courses on anti-racism and social justice,” Banks said.

Banks requested that the school board consider adding several new high school courses and explore ways DHS students would select one of these courses as a required class. The courses are introduction to African American/Black studies, introduction to Asian American studies, introduction to U.S. women’s studies, introduction to U.S. Latinx studies, introduction to American Indian students, civil rights in the United States, Holocaust and genocide studies, and ethnic studies.

One decolonizing initiative CSD is working on is the Justice, Action, Diversity and Equity (JADE) program, a proposal for a single course on anti-racism and social justice that would be taken by every CSD student before graduation. The district invited students to provide feedback on the proposal last year.

Decatur High School alumni Koan Roy-Meighoo and Julian Fortuna expanded the proposal to a three-year curriculum they would like to see implemented throughout the entirety of middle school. The JADE proposal was in the planning stages in 2021 and a pilot program is being created. The former students are working with a curriculum designer to create the materials for the pilot program and teacher training.

“We are developing our pilot program right now and we’re working with the middle school very closely. We hope it will be piloted in the spring of 2024. Until then we will be developing curriculum, teacher trainings, building out these focus groups and honing in on what we want our pilot program to look like,” Roy-Meighoo said.

They hope to launch the pilot program in Spring 2024 with six advisement cohorts and once-a-week meetings for 18 weeks. The official curriculum design would take place throughout 2023-2025 and the teacher training curriculum would be completed in 2024-2025.

The JADE program would then be implemented in eighth grade in the 2024-2025 school year, in seventh grade in 2025-2026 and in sixth grade in 2026-2027.

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