The Cherry Hill School District could become the first in New Jersey to mandate that students take an African American history course in order to graduate.

The school system is considering a proposal to add the requirement, partly in response to students who organized Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white officer.

“All kids should learn it,” said Joy Thomas, 16, a rising senior at Cherry Hill High School East. “It would be a good example to other districts.”

Cherry Hill would be the first district with the requirement, said Michael Yaple, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Education. Many schools teach Black history, but not as a prerequisite for graduation. New Jersey and Pennsylvania require history to be taught, but districts decide the content of their courses. In Philadelphia, a course in African American history, including the civil rights movement, is a graduation requirement.

“A high school course as a graduation requirement is wonderful,” said Stephanie James Harris, executive director of the New Jersey Amistad Commission, which helps schools implement a 2002 law that requires all public schools to teach African American history. “I like the idea.”

Cherry Hill plans to reopen schools in September with a hybrid model that enrolls students for two days in person and the remainder online. A revised version of the plan will be released at a school board meeting Tuesday.

Left to right, Obinna Okorie, Xandria McKinley, Noah Bereketab, Joy Thomas, Machayla Randall, and Danielle Maddred in front of Cherry Hill East.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Left to right, Obinna Okorie, Xandria McKinley, Noah Bereketab, Joy Thomas, Machayla Randall, and Danielle Maddred in front of Cherry Hill East.

Cherry Hill Superintendent Joseph Meloche said the district, which is predominantly white, wants to not only teach Black history more effectively at all grade levels, but also include social justice issues.

“The foundation message is that Black history is our history,” Meloche said. “It’s time we make a change.”

During a meeting earlier this month, Farrah Mahan, Cherry Hill’s curriculum director, introduced the idea of an African American studies course that was widely embraced by the school board. It is not expected to come up for a vote until the fall.

“It is absolutely something we should consider,” said board member Carol A. Matlack.

Cherry Hill already has an elective African American studies class that is offered for dual credit through Stockton University. It could be adapted, with approval, for the graduation requirement, Mahan said. It would still be taught by Cherry Hill teachers, and students would earn four college credits.

Details about a mandatory course still must be determined, such as whether additional teachers would be needed and what year students would be expected to take the class. Cherry Hill last changed its graduation requirements in 2017 when it added more science classes and labs.

Mahan said she expects ”difficult conversations” about the course, which would likely include discussions about social justice. The district also plans to review its textbooks and materials for cultural bias.

Several years ago, the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association lobbied unsuccessfully for the district to require a Black history course. School officials said they were especially moved this time by a student-led movement.

”It’s long overdue,” Tina Truitt, the association’s president, said Monday. “It needs to be told.”

Cherry Hill schools Superintendent Dr. Joseph Meloche.
Cherry Hill schools Superintendent Dr. Joseph Meloche.

Cherry Hill, the 11th largest public school district in the state, enrolls about 11,000 students. The district is 57% white, 18% Asian, 13% Hispanic, and 8% Black.

Students in high schools across the region have been pushing for changes in how Black history is taught. They want schools to address systemic racism and implicit bias among staff and students.

“There will be, I’m sure, some community and district pushback,” Mahan said. “We have to be willing to engage in that controversial dialogue to benefit the children of Cherry Hill public schools.”

Some board members expressed concern about adding too many demands to student schedules, and asked whether another requirement could be eliminated. Others want the district to revise its Amistad instruction across all content areas, as required by the law named for the ship that carried 53 Africans who had been kidnapped and sold into the Spanish slave trade in 1839. The slaves revolted, killing most of the crew.

The Amistad law requires all public schools to teach African American history and infuse it in subjects year-round. But it has not been widely implemented, something NJ19, a coalition of Black freeholders, is trying to change, said Mercer County Freeholder Samuel Frisby, vice chairman of the group. New Jersey also requires public schools to teach about the Holocaust.

Harris said she hopes Cherry Hill approves the course requirement, but not at the expense of embedding African American history fully into all lesson plans. Studies have found that schools are not adequately teaching the history and educators are not adequately prepared to do so.

”I want to make sure it is an ‘and’ and not an ‘or,‘” Harris said. “It is something that needs to be infused.”

Joy Thomas, 16, a rising senior at Cherry Hill High School East (with bullhorn) and classmates organized at a Black Lives Matter protest in June and asked school officials to add a mandatory African American studies class for all students.
Courtesy of Donzetta Workman-Thomas
Joy Thomas, 16, a rising senior at Cherry Hill High School East (with bullhorn) and classmates organized at a Black Lives Matter protest in June and asked school officials to add a mandatory African American studies class for all students.