Peoria Unified School District parents expressed concerns about a recently approved American history elective course that will be taught at Centennial High School.
A handful of parents objected to the one credit class titled American Studies set for the 2021-22 school year at the December governing board meeting.
The course description states students will explore the experiences and perspectives of a diverse array of American groups and study concepts like identity, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality and culture.
The description of the course includes helping “cultivate respect and historical empathy for the experiences, struggles and achievement of a variety of American identities, including African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, LGBT Americans and other groups.”
One course goal is for students to become more conscious of the political, social and economic frameworks that impact Americans’ experiences.
The course’s curriculum — yet to be developed — has some parents upset that it’s an option at the high school, saying subject matter is more suitable for a college course.
“Being at a taxpayer funded institution, I consider it out of line to promote ideas that denounce the genius of our forefathers in a country that has done nothing but provide opportunities for those willing to work,” said Devon Updegraff Day, a former PUSD parent. “If a student chooses to learn about a different perspective in American history, then they can go to the library or borrow a book and learn about it in their own time.”
A divided school board approved the new course Dec. 10, with members Judy Doane and Beverly Pingereilli dissenting.
Ms. Doane said courses like American Studies is why American cities are burning down.
“It causes very much division among people that were once friends,” she said. “Victim mentality and identity politics are the last thing our kids need when they are trying to study English and math and real history that has been documented. Perspectives may be all good and well in college, but our students need a basic understanding of where we came from.”
Ms. Pingerelli said she would not approve of something in concept form.
“I’m not as comfortable with that,” she said. “So unless I know what the curriculum is going to say, I’m not willing to approve it.”
However, it is not uncommon for new PUSD courses in their conceptual forms to go before the governing board for consideration. Courses have come up a number times over the last few years. In October 2019, Ms. Pingerelli and the rest of the board approved a collection of new courses in conceptual form, including classes on robotics, crime scene investigation, cyber security and sports medicine.
The district takes course concept proposals from their schools and other sources to the governing board for approval and then writes the curriculum with teacher teams, the teacher who will teach the course and a content specialist.
PUSD Social Studies Curriculum and Instructional Specialist Jennifer Mundy, a former social studies teacher of nearly 20 years, said there are many state standards that support the American Studies course.
State standards guide what public and charter school students are expected to learn at each grade level. Standards are set, with input from parents and educators, by the Arizona Board of Education.
New Arizona history and social science standards were adopted in 2018, which had previously been updated in 2005.
Two new standards that apply to the American Studies course are: evaluate the significance of past events as they relate to students’ own lives and the world, as well as analyze how context shapes and continues to shape people’s perspective.
Ms. Mundy said at the Dec. 10 public meeting the American Studies class aligns with state standards.
“When we are talking about perspectives, we are talking about primary source documents,” she said. “Your perception of this meeting will be different from my perception. That does not mean that I am wrong or you are wrong. This course is rooted in our state standards and when we talk about multiple perspectives and looking at the experiences of different groups from this country, it is backed up by what was approved in 2018 by our state.”
Alexa Hart, a former PUSD student and now a student at Northern Arizona University, proposed the American Studies class to district officials as part of her senior capstone project. She is a student in the honors college, majoring in philosophy, politics and law, and minoring in economics and ethnic studies.
Ms. Hart said that as an African American she did not feel seen or heard in her high school courses.
“I’ve learned all students deserve to be heard in their education. Education possesses the special right to mold the minds of the future, therefore we ought to mold the minds to a standard of truth and inclusion,” she said. “American Studies will enable students to truly understand the nation’s past and celebrate its diversity. This course will instill historical empathy and understanding for all Americans. In a time when racial conflicts run rampant, it is our duty to understand others and how our country arrived to this point.”
Diane Dunham, who will teach the course and did not have Ms. Hart as a student, said it is sad to hear people say the course is about victimization. In actuality, it is one of embracing and inspiring, she said.
Ms. Dunham, who has taught American history for nearly 30 years, said the American experience is an ongoing one that everybody is responsible for maintaining, to reap the rewards the system has to offer.
When you teach history you have to be prepared to teach all of it, she said.
“We want to keep up the amazing things that we get from this system, and we all a have a rich role in that. And the more we deny people access to being a part of this amazing system, the more divided we will become going forward. It needs to be a celebration,” Ms. Dunham said.
“It’s not just about one group or another group. It is the why that is important. The what is everywhere. This class heps kids ask why, and the why is everything. The point you get from A to B is important. But what you do to go to C from there is even more important. But you can’t jump from A to C. When you see kids that find a connection to the back story of this country and you see the enormous impact it makes on them, it changes the game.”
In recent years, the country has become much more divided over a variety of issues, which has resulted in thousands of public demonstrations in not just large urban areas, but small towns as well.
Mark Rooks, the grandfather of a Peoria Unified student, blamed the educational system for violent protests and said the new American Studies class will have a negative effect on students in PUSD.
“The young people we witness rioting and looting in some of our largest cities came out of an educational system that taught them to hate America. I think that’s really sad. The source of the hatred can be traced directly to an emphasis on identity culture which separates us into special interest groups. Each group is isolated from the other by mistrust stemming from perceived grievances and artificial cultural barriers,” Mr. Rooks said. “This class is one that continues misguided methods of emphasizing the negative differences between American citizens. This country is not a country of racism or sexism or any kind of -ism. We are tired of the continual drum beat of our educational system to program our kids into thinking our America is a country of hate and division. It is not.”
As many as 26 million people participated in thousands of protests across the country this year, according to a new report produced by the US Crisis Project, a joint effort by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project as well as the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University, which collects and analyzes real-time data on demonstrations and political violence in the US.
About 93% of racial justice protests in the US since the death of George Floyd to police brutality in Minneapolis earlier this year have been peaceful and nondestructive, the report said.
Trina Berg, a teacher at Ironwood High School, said the country is divided and the new class can help those divisions to fall away and bring students together.
Plus, it’s an elective course, not required for all students, and if an 18-year-old student is interested in taking it, he or she should be able to take it, she said.
“Honestly, I’m a little confused why this is such a controversial thing. We have a history that is very controversial and we should be ok with discussing this,” Ms. Berg said. “Not every person has the same experience in their house, so they should have an opportunity through our school system to learn new perspectives. This is how we overcome some of the past issues that have been brought to light and become a very driving force in our political landscape right now.”
The course description for American Studies states students will explore their own identity, drawing personal connections to their local and global histories. The class will allow students to analyze how factors like power and privilege impact historical and contemporary events.
Students who complete American Studies will engage in case studies as they move chronologically from 1492 to contemporary America.
PUSD Chief Academic Support Officer Kendra Bell said the class is not comprised of ethnocentric curriculum, but simply provides multiple perspectives from diverse viewpoints.
“We do not see the American Studies course as an ethnic studies course but rather, the course covers history and goes deeper into analyzing a variety of different perspectives from diverse groups of people,” Ms. Bell said. “It is not designed or intended to indoctrinate students into a set of beliefs. Instead, the intent is the opposite. Students will be challenged to think critically and examine authentic sources to understand history from multiple, broad perspectives.”
Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.