What started as a question from an East High School student – can there be a class on African American history – has grown into an initiative to improve and expand the teaching of history at Des Moines Public Schools. A group of students are playing an important role in bringing about this change, which is expected to result in new course offerings starting next year.

Over the course of its existence, DMPS has become perhaps the most diverse, representative organization in Iowa. Today, two-thirds of enrollment are students of color, one out of five students are English Language Learners, and students came to our community from a hundred different nations around the world.

Developing a social studies curriculum that better reflects the history and culture of the people who make up our community is now underway, and students voices are having a say in elective courses to meet their needs and interests.

“I feel like it is important that districts change their social studies curriculum because our history and the stories of our ancestors should be a source of empowerment and liberation,” said Lyric Sellers of East, one of the students helping district officials in this effort. “If we want to dismantle systemic racism, it starts with what we are taught. We must be taught the truth.”

McKenzie Kennedy is the social studies curriculum coordinator at DMPS. Kennedy notes that, while improvements to teaching high school history have been considered before, the events of this past summer – the protests that renewed focus on racial justice along with the anti-racism conversations held as DMPS – served as a catalyst to do more than just talk.

Wanting to make sure students were a part of the process, she reached out to schools for suggestions for who had an interest in the topic and willingness to spend time working to develop ideas for new elective courses. In the end, a work group of seven students was formed that included at least one member from each high school as well as a representation of the diverse make-up of DMPS.

Students on the work group are Kaiya Brown of Roosevelt, Kira Canada of Lincoln, Cindy Hoang of North, Gabi Hoard of Roosevelt, Endi Montalvo-Martinez of East, Tae-shaun Presswood of Hoover, and Lyric Sellers of East.

Along with Kristopher Rollins, a teacher in the Urban Leadership program at Central Campus, Kennedy and the student work group have been meeting, virtually, each week throughout this school year to help design the courses and begin work with teachers on how best to implement them.

“I think a lot of teachers and administrators are open to seeing this change, and they have been for years now, but many of them haven’t been pushed enough to put in the work to make these changes happen until now,” noted Roosevelt’s Gabi Hoard. “I’ve seen a lot more teachers become more open to this type of work in the past few years because we have been so vocal about how important it is to us for so long, and now people are finally listening more seriously and taking action.”

In addition to creating history courses that are more complete, representative and accurate, this effort also underscores that the social sciences are an important part of education that need to be lifted up.

North High’s Cindy Hoang feels this could be a key result of their work.

“Of all the core classes taught, social science has the least recognition of importance,” said Hoang. “There is standardized testing for all the other core subjects except for social science because there is not an agreed foundation to base these tests on. It is important to note that facts do not change when being taught, but it is the narrative told that differs. There should be a consistent and inclusive social science program that accurately depicts history and how everlasting it is. There is no doubt, disagreement about the translations or the point of view of history, that is why it is significant to have multiple stories being told to see a common ground of the actual events.”

While the students working to improve history courses are in high school and will move on soon, the long-term benefits of this effort was something that they hope will be realized.

“In 5-10 years, I think DMPS students will be more educated about their history,” noted Lincoln’s Kira Canada. “They will be able to rely more on the school’s curriculum and not have to turn away from it and find the information they need themselves. I also think it will bring more students together and make minorities feel more welcomed and confident. I think this work can make a really big difference. More students will be engaged and possibly speak out more.”

“I think this will inspire future generations to take action and use their voice to make change,” added Tae’Shaun Presswood from Hoover. “Not only in this topic but in all. This shows students that their voice matters.”

The group is getting ready to begin work with high school teachers who volunteered to develop material for the second semester of the Modern US History course that better reflects this more representative approach. After that the focus will shift to next school year, which could include high school elective courses such as African American Studies, LatinX History, Asian American and Pacific Islanders History, and LGBTQ+ History.

Through it all, the students recognize that such changes in how history is taught make be difficult and uncomfortable at first, but in the end being inclusive in teaching a more complete history which includes that of the people DMPS serves is the right thing to do.

As East’s Sellers observed: “I think the most significant change regarding the way our history is taught should be to unfilter it. Talking about subjects such as slavery, colonizing, genocide, etc., should not be easy. It should be a difficult conversation. We often avoid or tiptoe around those subjects because of discomfort. That is a selfish way to teach and an unhealthy way to learn.”

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