District 65’s African Centered Curriculum (ACC) classes at Oakton Elementary School deserve more attention, marketing and investment, parents and families argued at a community meeting Tuesday night.

The curriculum draws on traditional African values like the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Kwanzaa, which revolve around ideas such as collective responsibility and respect for others. The program aims to instill a disposition for learning, a pride in academic excellence and an appreciation for diversity in its students.

Manager of Student Assignments Sarita Smith speaks to parents about the African Centered Curriculum in the Oakton Elementary library on Tuesday night. Credit: Duncan Agnew

“I’ve got a lot of teacher friends that work at Chute [Middle School], and they say their best and brightest students have come from the ACC program, that they are more prepared than any other kids they get that are in general education programs,” said Tasha Nemo, a District 65 parent and sixth grade teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Literary and Fine Arts School.

“They are more confident, they’re smarter, they are OK with doing the rigorous work. They’re up for the challenge.”

Oakton currently has one ACC class per grade open to any interested students of all races and backgrounds. Most of the students are Black, but there are a few white students in many of the class sections.

Nemo’s daughter is in an ACC class at Oakton, and her mother, Terri Shepard, was one of the program’s founders in 2006.

Shepard said she first heard about different schools around the country using an African curriculum thanks to an episode of The Phil Donahue Show, the long-running daytime talk show that aired through the late 1990s.

In the early 2000s, Shepard visited other cities like Milwaukee and Detroit to shadow classes and meet with educators running similar programs.

Initally, the District 65 school board at the time was not particularly enthused about the idea, she said, but former Superintendent Hardy Murphy eventually said yes to ACC classes at both Oakton and Kingsley Elementary Schools.

But ACC never got off the ground at Kingsley because of opposition from white parents, according to Shepard.

“ACC was always presented as something for everyone. You didn’t have to be Black to be in this program,” Shepard said. “You just had to understand the genesis of it and the center of it.

“Still, there’s quite a few white parents in Evanston that don’t buy this. And, getting back to what I felt the district didn’t do, they never advertised the program properly.”

Shepard and Nemo were speaking at a District 65 Student Assignment Planning meeting at Oakton and focused on community feedback on the ACC program.

To Shepard’s point about marketing, many parents in attendance mentioned how “90%” of the families they talk to have never heard of ACC. This school year, 86 students are enrolled across all classes, despite a program capacity of 126.

Changing perceptions

Some parents at the meeting, especially parents of white children participating in ACC, expressed concern around the perception that they were taking up a space meant for Black students.

They also mentioned the “playground talk” that they hear, where other families may have certain opinions or judgments on a program like ACC that they may not totally understand.

“I never would have thought that was an issue,” said Jamila Pitts, District 65’s director of professional learning and the head of ACC. “And I can assure you that the mere presence of a person who’s a diverse other in whatever regard does not diminish the quality of community. In fact, it enriches, because one of the goals of the program is engaging with diverse others. Hard to do that if you don’t have diverse others.”

Shepard, Nemo and Pitts all argued that if students of any background come to ACC with an open mind and a willingness to learn about African history, cultures and traditions, then they will be successful no matter what they encounter.

Nemo said her daughter is constantly reading and talking about how the principles of Kwanzaa apply to different scenarios.

District 65 parent and King Arts teacher Tasha Nemo said Oakton “is still the best place I’ve gone to school.” Credit: Duncan Agnew

“She doesn’t even identify any of these kids as Black or white or Brown,” Nemo said. “They are just part of her classroom, and she loves all of them.”

Ultimately, meeting attendees agreed that more ACC classes and better advertising of the program would be a big win for the district, and any education that white families in particular can do to spread the word about the program being for everyone would be a massive help too. In a city facing longstanding racial divides, segregation, redlining and inequality, ACC could be a learning opportunity for everyone.

Echoing that idea, Hannah Elo, a white parent of two Black students at Oakton, said the district needs more examples of a diverse array of families participating in and representing ACC. With a clearer vision about who the program is for and how it provides a unique opportunity for kids, the sky should be the limit for ACC, she said.

“Especially in our culture right now, there’s no reason why this program should not be full, because I know all my friends are wanting a non-Eurocentric curriculum in their schools,” Elo said. “And so I think we also have to market that language that people are searching for, and searching for schools that are doing things differently.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. In 2019 I was a volunteer tutor in as an after-school reading program for Oakton School 3rd graders. The first day I entered the school, just as it was letting out, I was amazed to see how different the ethnic and racial composition of its student body and staff were in comparison to those of my neighborhood school in northeast Evanston and learned that Oakton had both African Centered Curriculum and Two Way Immersion programs. My Oakton reading student and I worked, along with other tutors and students, in a classroom located in the African Centered Curriculum wing. The homeroom teacher had covered its walls – and sometimes the windows too – with displays coordinated to each week’s lesson plans and filled a book rack with rotating selections that tied into those themes. I quickly realized how unfamiliar I was with the information that was being presented, and also that just being superficially exposed to it was interesting and educational. I began checking out some of the books I’d seen on the rack from Evanston Public Library and was humbled to learn, among other things, about Ida B. Wells and the daunting challenges she overcame to advance civil rights while in Chicago. D65 schools with ACC and TWI curriculum options provide direct and indirect enrichment, in their classrooms and beyond. It would behoove D65 to better inform the Evanston community about these programs.

    1. That is interesting, Anita.

      Ida B. Wells was certainly a very important figure in the civil rights movement. From an Evanston perspective, her public critique of Frances Willard for attributing the failure of temperance legislation in the 1890s to African American opposition is interesting.

      But, again, like Kwanzaa, Ida B. Wells is an American figure who was born here and her most prominent writings were concerned with conditions in the USA.

      Did you get a sense of what African-specific material were they covering?

  2. My perception of the ACC when it was initially presented was that there was little coherence in the curriculum and given the fact that Africa is an incredibly diverse place racially, ethnically, and culturally it was unclear how it could be viably implemented.

    The article mentions that the curriculum draws on “traditional African values like the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Kwanzaa.” Of course, Kwanzaa is an American holiday that uses Kiswahili words to describe pretty universal social concepts (unity, self-determination, collaboration, local economics, purpose, creativity, faith).

    It is great that an American member of the African diaspora promoted these principles (which can also be found in different cultural traditions throughout the world), but it is weird for it to be a model for “African Centered Curriculum.” If you started talking about “kwanza” with random residents from, say, Dakar, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about.

    If you REALLY wanted an African Centered Curriculum you would start with teaching something emblematic and unique to the continent, like an African language. I would suggest Arabic be the focus since it is the second most spoken language in Africa and the sixth most spoken language in the US. You could also do Kiswahili, but it may be more challenging to find certified teachers competent in the language. Arabic has the advantage of also being spoken in a number of countries outside Africa and is a UN-recognized language giving it important global significance.

    Model the ACC program like TWI where students get Arabic immersion and integrate the cultural practices typical of the various Arabic-speaking communities and ethnic groups across the continent.

    I agree that the District doesn’t advertise the program very well (but that’s typical of how they treat all of the magnet programs).

    But I think at a fundamental level, there is just a curricular incoherence that makes the program confusing for most parents in the district.