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Letter from alumni, students to District 99 officials calls for additional black perspectives in curriculum

Mary Coleman, a 2009 Downers Grove North High School graduate, organized a petition asking that additional African-American perspectives be included in English, history and government curricula.
Mary Coleman, a 2009 Downers Grove North High School graduate, organized a petition asking that additional African-American perspectives be included in English, history and government curricula.

DOWNERS GROVE – A group of Downers Grove North and Downers Grove South alumni and students sent a letter this week to the schools' principals and Community High School District 99 officials asking that additional African-American perspectives be included in English, history and government curricula.

The letter, with 618 signatures, comes amid nationwide protests against police brutality and institutional racism. A protest June 7 in Downers Grove organized by two Downers Grove North graduates drew close to 5,000 people.

The letter, while citing the "wealth of advantages and privileges" students enjoy in the district, notes one "prominent omission" – "a set of diverse perspectives from a racially representative group of peers." Nine percent of the district's 4,894 students are black, ccording to the district's website.

"It is very easy to be a student at DGN or DGS and have minimal interactions with black people," the letter stated. "The educational system is a critical venue on imparting lasting change. By actively incorporating black perspectives and history, CSD 99 can increase awareness, acknowledgement and understanding of our country's long guilty history of systemic injustice and racism."

Mary Coleman, a 2009 Downers Grove North graduate, organized the petition. Coleman's father is a 1985 Downers Grove North graduate and her brother just finished his junior year at the school.

"This moment is shining a bright spotlight on social disparity and inequality that has existed in the United States since the beginning," Coleman said. "It is demanding how we look at our current education system and remove all aspects of whitewashing to view history as it really happened. 

"Downers Grove means a lot to me, and I want to do anything I can to make it a better place. The very least I can hope this letter does is to cause the teachers, department heads, school board members, everyone who helps picks things like reading materials or textbooks to look around a moment longer and hopefully pick the best book and not just the book they know the best. I want to challenge those people to set the dead white guys aside."

The letter cites "uncomfortable truths" it says are frequently omitted from history curricula, including awareness of the 1921 massacre of more than 300 black people in Tulsa's Wall Street and awareness of the historical redlining that has segregated Chicago and "directly led to the lack of generational wealth opportunities."

It further lists non-fiction and fiction books from authors such as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, and documentary films "to open windows into places and perspectives."

Coleman said that looking back at her English classes, she remembered a lot of Shakespeare, and could only think of one book that was required, in-class reading that wasn't written by a white person. She remembered a class her senior year that was supposed to be about modern U.S. history from World War II to the 1990s, and ended up being taught about the ancient kingdom of Babylon.

"It was such a let down and I was so disappointed. I really thought we'd be spending time on the 1950s & 1960s and the civil rights movement. I'm going to be frank, I didn't go to that class the entire month of May," Coleman said. "I felt so betrayed. My brother will be a senior, I don't want him to be dealt a hand like that."

Downers Grove North Principal Janice Schwarze, responding to the letter, said that "District 99 is committed to doing just what you asked – ensuring that all voices and perspectives are heard and that students learn about people who look like them as well as those who don't."

"While we still have work to do, the English curriculum and social studies curriculum have evolved a great deal over the last 15 years and especially the last five," Schwarze said. "Teachers have made a conscious effort to include voices other than 'dead white male' in both subject areas and several of the titles included in your recommended list are actually used in District 99 currently. Teachers in both departments understand the importance of hearing the stories of people of color and are committed to continued revisions in curriculum to ensure that all perspectives are shared and valued."

Downers Grove South Principal Ed Schwartz echoed his colleague's sentiments.

"I only want to further pledge our resolve to continue to make sure that the black perspective and historical experiences are openly talked about and shared," Schwarz said. "At South High, we value our diversity and we will continue, and work to improve upon, our efforts in ensuring that all students' history, voices, and perspectives are represented. We have made some great strides, but we also recognize that we have much work to do."

An Illinois House of Representatives resolution in 2019 required that every public elementary school and high school include in its curriculum a unit of instruction studying the events of black history. A Black History Curriculum Task Force was created to conduct an audit of every Illinois school district's history curriculum from K-12.

"I know that this is something that the school district is working on," Coleman said. "The purpose of the letter in relation to this was to let them know their community is supporting them, watching them, and will hold them accountable to their word."

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