Cherry Hill Public Schools are on the precipice of making history. At the latest Cherry Hill Board of Education meeting, Director of Curriculum Farrah Mahan presented an overview of the African American Studies course. If approved, it will make Cherry Hill the first school district in the state to make African American studies a graduation requirement.
Mahan noted the timing of her presentation was especially apt. Usually, new courses or graduation requirements are presented to the board earlier in the year, but the timing of her presentation happened to line up with Black History Month. The course will be up for introduction and a vote for board approval at the Feb. 23 board of education meeting.
“We will be the first to have this as a high school graduation requirement for all students,” Mahan said.
The course comes as a response to the student outcry about the way the district’s history curriculum is currently being taught. On Juneteenth (June 19), students organized a peaceful protest during which attendees walked from Ellisburg Circle to the Cherry Hill Public Library.
Mahan said as it stands, African American history in Cherry Hill is taught as “a deficit model” only touching on slavery and Martin Luther King. Mahan stressed that teaching history in that way overlooks contributions that African Americans have made to American history.
In listening to the student voices, the district learned that Black and brown Cherry Hill students feel marginalized in school and that the history curriculum does not reflect Black Americans in a positive way.
“Our students are telling us what they need to feel and to be seen within Cherry Hill Public Schools,” Mahan noted.
The district currently offers two elective Black history courses. The mandatory African American studies course would be a semester long course worth 2.5 credits that students will take either their freshman or sophomore years. The course will move beyond the enslavement of millions of people and use the curriculum to highlight examples of Black and brown excellence.
If approved, the curriculum will be written starting this spring, and administrators are currently consulting with professors from Georgia State University, Monmouth University, Stockton University and the University of Pennsylvania to develop the course.The district will also need to hire two full-time teachers, one for Cherry Hill High School West and one for Cherry Hill High School East.
Board Member Miriam Stern said there’s a feeling among many that the course is long overdue. She wasn’t exposed to African American studies until college, and Stern feels she missed out by not delving into those facets of history sooner.
“I just think this is something that is so critical for all of our students,” she added.
Board member Corrien Elmore-Stratton said talks about representation in the curriculum are not new: The same conversations took place when she was a student in the district, and while the course is a good first step, there are other pieces of work that must follow to ensure all students feel seen.
“This is a continuous change that we have to always be addressing,” she said.
Board member Sally Tong questioned why the course will be a graduation requirement, and if the district had any survey data to support the course’s creation.
“Why are we having it mandatory?” she asked.
Mahan responded that the district has listened to students who said they feel marginalized by the current curriculum and that their majority peers need to hear and be exposed to the same lessons they’re taught. She said as it stands, all students are exposed to is slavery and Martin Luther King’s actions during the civil rights movement.
“We are doing a disservice to our students if we allow every child from Cherry Hill public schools to graduate and believe or think that that is the only contribution that Black African Americans have made to the history of this country,” Mahan concluded.
The course will be up for a vote at the board’s next meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 23.