Cherry Hill Public Schools made history on Feb. 23 when they became the first district in New Jersey to make African American Studies a graduation requirement.
The course will be a requirement for the incoming freshman class in September 2021 and every subsequent class moving forward.
The African American Studies course will be worth 2.5 credits, to be taken in freshman or sophomore year. The studies will move beyond the enslavement of millions of people; the curriculum will instead highlight examples of Black and Brown excellence.
The township board of education was nearly unanimous in its vote, with the exception of board member Sally Tong, who abstained. Leading up to the vote, members of the public voiced their support for the course and encouraged members to vote yes.
Tina Truitt said as an African American woman, educator and mother of three, the course has personal meaning. She asked board members to think about the African American students who told administrators they do not feel represented in their history courses and yearn to learn more about people who look like them.
She stressed that Black history is American history and should be taught as such, and that it’s imperative every student in the district be taught the full scope of history.
“How do we expect students to leave their community and their world better than they found it if a huge piece of history has been swept under the rug and devalued by some because it makes them uncomfortable?” Truitt asked.
Jamie Goodwin, former valedictorian at Cherry Hill High School East, said she knows that sometimes people will question why the district is just focusing on African Americans when there are other students of color.
“I do think it’s important to remember the unique history and connection towards Black enslavement, Black suffering, Black murder in this country, such that understanding all racism towards all groups, it finds its bed in this sort of deep anti-blackness of this country’s foundation,” Goodwin added. “And so, I think we should not think of it as at odds but as a starting point to sort of pull up and include all students of color.”
Parent Yonaton Yares stressed that the course is long overdue and an important step forward for Cherry Hill.
“This is the start of a long journey for making an environment more inclusive for all students,” Yares said.
On the other hand, resident Mike Adelizzi questioned why the course is mandatory, where the courses representing others are and why the district doesn’t have a Jewish American studies course. He said he thinks the district should embrace a view of American history that is “without color.”
“My personal feeling is that the more we push an agenda based on color, the more problems we are going to have,” Adelizzi noted.
Board member Corrien Elmore-Stratton fought back tears as she talked about her own experience in Cherry Hill schools. She recalled what it felt like being the only Black student in a classroom at times and only having African American history acknowledged once a month. She believes the new course is about giving voice to a population of students who want to be seen.
“It’s never about us not acknowledging other cultures. It’s never about us not acknowledging other people’s genocides. It’s not a conversation of comparison. It’s a conversation of acknowledgement,” Elmore-Stratton observed. “And this is the conversation at this moment about this culture, and it does not mean that anything else is unimportant or unseen. It means that we are addressing this issue in this time period at this time.”
She stressed that the work doesn’t end with the course, and that the district needs to focus on holding people accountable to continue the push for more equitable representation.
Following the vote, Assistant Superintendent and Director of Curriculum Farrah Mahan said she was overwhelmed with joy knowing that she will have the opportunity to move forward with the course. She told Elmore-Stratton that she is honored to be the person held accountable for ensuring Cherry Hill students continue to be seen and have their voices heard and valued.
“There is work to be done, and this is not the last action to be taken but the first step,” she said. “And let the journey begin.”