Until very recently, Denver’s eighth-grade social studies curriculum asked students to identify the challenges faced by settlers as they moved West in the 1800s — but not those faced by the Native Americans whose land they took.
Denver Public Schools officials are now revising that curriculum. Tamara Acevedo, deputy superintendent of academics, said in a statement that the district has removed that particular “performance task” and is re-writing it.
“It is imperative that our curriculum reflects our students and our core value of equity,” she said. “It is also imperative that we receive feedback from our community and appreciate when people raise concerns as we must all work on tackling historical patterns of inequity.”
The changes come after a Denver high school principal, who is a member of the Klamath tribe of Oregon, expressed horror with the curriculum — and frustration that it hadn’t yet been changed. Stacy Parrish, principal at Northeast Early College in the Montbello neighborhood, said she first told the district her concerns about the eighth-grade social studies curriculum a year ago, after a candidate for a job at her school taught a lesson from it as part of an interview.
Parrish repeated those concerns at a Nov. 21 meeting of the Denver school board.
During public comment, Parrish told the board she was horrified to learn “that genocide, slaughter and the cultural annihilation of millions of Native Americans could also be [couched] as positive social, geographic, and economic motivations.”
“As a Native employee, I keep feeling erased,” Parrish told Chalkbeat in an interview.
Even the title of the social studies unit, “Expanding Nation,” is triggering, she said.
“The nation was already here,” Parrish said. “As you get into the unit, it’s very indicative of how far behind the times we are with what we mean when we say ‘equity.’ … It really eliminates the Native American perspective, which should be at the forefront of how we’re teaching this.”
For example, the curriculum suggests that teachers who want to “add rigor and relevance” to the unit could ask students to write about whether the settlers’ actions were justified.
Carol Tisdale, the early college coordinator at Northeast Early College, also addressed the school board. She recalled how as a first-year middle school social studies teacher 20 years ago, she had to find ways to supplement the Euro-centric curriculum she was given.
“I was appalled to learn that the myths and untruths that I was taught in the ’80s, that I was given in the 2000s to teach from, was still being taught today,” Tisdale said. “I really urge you to look at our curriculum, to challenge the entire DPS team, to do what we say we value and to recognize the ugly truths of our history, both in the past and the present.”
Denver’s eighth-grade social studies curriculum was selected by a group of Denver educators, with community members invited to give feedback, Acevedo said. Called “American History: Beginnings Through Reconstruction,” it comes from a national textbook publisher, though Acevedo said the “performance tasks” were designed by a team of Denver teachers.
“Recently, we were given feedback regarding a performance task,” Acevedo said. “This performance task has been removed and is being rewritten to address the feedback.”
In addition, Acevedo said the entire eighth-grade U.S. history curriculum is undergoing a review by “a diverse team of teachers” and the district’s new culturally responsive education department. The high school history curriculum was audited by the same team this past summer, she said, with revisions to be completed by next school year. Also under review, Acevedo said: the internal process of reviewing curriculum, with an eye toward equity.
Superintendent Susana Cordova has made equity a cornerstone of her approach, with a particular focus on improving education for the black and Latino students who make up the majority of Denver’s 92,000 students. Fewer than 1% of Denver students identify as Native American. Both Native American students and staff have said they feel overlooked.
“It’s not my job to be the face of the race to point this out to the curriculum writers in the district,” Parrish said. “I need people employed in our district to recognize this.”