SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education introduced a new social studies curriculum for grades six through eight at its Aug. 21 meeting and the decision came as a surprise to some parents and community members who did not know the program was being revised, and members of the SOMA Black Parents Workshop said the new curriculum is meant to divert attention from the flaws in the district’s curriculum for kindergarten through grade five.
“The SOMA Black Parents Workshop takes exception to the adoption of a new grades 6-8 social studies curriculum by the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education,” SOMA Black Parents Workshop Chairman Walter Fields said in an Aug. 23 statement. “This action is nothing more than an attempt to ‘save face’ by a board leadership that was tone deaf to the concerns parents and the community members raised over the inappropriateness of an elementary school assignment on American slavery last year.”
Fields was referring to an assignment in which students were asked to make posters showing what they had learned about slave auctions. As previously reported in the News-Record, this resulted in several posters being hung in the hallways of South Mountain School showing black people for sale.
“Without context, it looked like slave auction posters are hanging in the hallway,” Fields said in a phone interview on Aug. 25.
Fields also brought up an incident at Jefferson Elementary School in which students held a mock slave auction.
“They’re leaving the K-to-five curriculum intact,” Fields said. “From our perspective, that should have been the priority. We find it troubling that they put it off until next year. No one raised an issue with the middle school curriculum.”
Board President Elizabeth Baker said at the meeting that the change in the middle school curriculum is the first part of an overhaul of the social studies curriculum for kindergarten to eighth grade. Susan Grierson, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said at the meeting that the board met with community members and the middle school social studies department to work on the new curriculum.
“Board members had the opportunity to meet in small groups to hear directly from the supervisor and review the curriculum. Based on feedback from board members, from staff, from community members and the middle school social studies department, the social studies curriculum was further revised so that we could input your suggestions,” Grierson said.
Grierson said the final document was presented at the Equity and Excellence Committee meeting in July.
“At that meeting, the document was projected so that everyone could see the highlights and the work that had been completed, most notably the alignment to the Amistad curriculum,” she said.
The new curriculum was written by five members of the social studies staff in the South Orange-Maplewood School District and reviewed by Gayle Griffin, a retired educator and representative from the NAACP. Professional development to teach other staff members the curriculum is planned for Sept. 5, as well as at staff meetings throughout the year. The topics for each grade have remained the same: sixth-graders will be learning U.S. history; seventh-graders will learn global studies and eighth-graders will learn world history. A parent meeting is planned for the early fall to share the new curriculum.
The Amistad curriculum is a state-mandated curriculum that aims to make African-American history a central part of social studies classes in kindergarten through grade 12.
“The Amistad Commission’s goal is to change the landscape for the study of United States and world history by placing Africans and African-Americans at the center of the narrative as agents rather than as bystanders or victims who live on the margins of the United States and the world,” the Amistad Commission’s mission statement reads. “Our mandate has shifted from one of inclusion to one of infusion.”
“My feedback to the district indicated a number of concerns, especially for lack of inclusion of the required Amistad resources available from the state of New Jersey,” Griffin said at the meeting. “It is so, so critical that the teaching of the curriculum is ensured in every classroom. I cannot emphasize that enough. You can write it, but if it isn’t taught it’s a waste of paper,” she said after saying that she found the new curriculum will have more historical context.
The SOMA Black Parents Workshop, however, feels that the district has not adequately adhered to the Amistad curriculum and finds the lack of transparency frustrating.
“We haven’t seen it, and few people have seen it,” Fields said. “This was just announced at the last school board meeting of the summer at the 11th hour, and this is problematic.”
Citing the racial academic achievement gap in the SOMSD, Fields said he wants to see the new middle school curriculum in its entirety, including the textbooks and other materials being used in class.
“The district is still not in full compliance with Amistad,” Fields said. “We tie curriculum to the academic achievement gap and, until we get it right, we’ll see that gap.”