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.
“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.
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.
“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.”