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Cherry Hill School District becomes first in N.J. to mandate African American history course for graduation

"There is no history without Black history," said Farrah Mahan, Cherry Hill’s curriculum director, in a push to adopt the mandatory course for the South Jersey district.

Some of the students who helped push for a mandatory African American history course are shown (Left to Right): Joy Thomas, Machayla Randall, Xandria McKinley, and Obinna Okorie, in front of Cherry Hill East High School last June.
Some of the students who helped push for a mandatory African American history course are shown (Left to Right): Joy Thomas, Machayla Randall, Xandria McKinley, and Obinna Okorie, in front of Cherry Hill East High School last June.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Beginning this fall, Cherry Hill public school students will be required to take a course on African American history in order to graduate.

The Cherry Hill school board voted 8-0 Tuesday night to make the South Jersey district the first in New Jersey to mandate the course for its more than 11,000 students. The push has garnered national attention and could prompt other districts to follow.

The decision came after impassioned pleas and tears during a virtual meeting. Board member Sally Tong, an Asian-American who has questioned whether the course should be mandatory and whether it should teach students about other minorities, abstained. She did not comment before the vote.

“This is about our district taking a stand,” Corrien Elmore-Stratton, the only Black board member, said, choking back tears. “I could never live in this community and not be a Black woman.”

Students who organized Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white officer last May asked for the class. They said Black history was mostly taught in February with only token reference to civil rights figures such as Rosa Parks and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We felt it was really essential that it was mandatory,” said Joy Thomas, 17, a senior at Cherry Hill High School East and a member of the school’s African American Culture Club. “We think everyone should be more culturally aware and aware as a nation.”

Cherry Hill would be the first New Jersey district with the requirement, according to the state Department of Education. 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.

Some have questioned whether the district should focus on better implementing New Jersey’s Amistad law, which requires schools to infuse Black history into their curriculum across all content areas. The law was named for the ship that carried 53 Africans who were kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1839. The slaves revolted, killing most of the crew.

“Why should it be mandatory?” resident Raymond Adelizzi asked the board Tuesday night. “When can we move forward without focusing on color?”

Hadia Qazi, a Cherry Hill East graduate, supported the proposal, saying in a statement: “Our nation’s present problems with race and intolerance cannot be put into context if we don’t know the history behind it.”

During a board meeting earlier this month, Farrah Mahan, Cherry Hill’s curriculum director, said a course was desperately needed in the predominantly white district to address systemic racism and implicit bias by staff and students. Cherry Hill, the 11th-largest public school district in the state, is 57% white, 18% Asian, 13% Hispanic, and 8% Black.

“Think about the teachable moments that would come during this course,” Mahan said. “There is no history without Black history.”

Tina Truitt, the mother of a high school student, said she found it “simply mind-boggling” that a board vote was needed. She said advocates must work to integrate Black history into the curriculum for all grade levels.

“How do we expect students to leave their community and 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.

Mahan said that starting with the 2021-22 school year, a semester course would likely be offered for freshmen and sophomores at the district’s two comprehensive high schools. Students would earn 2.5 credits, she said. The district would need to hire two teachers, she said.

Currently, Cherry Hill has two elective African American studies courses. The district last changed its graduation requirements in 2017 when it added more science classes and labs.

Mahan said the district also plans to review its textbooks and materials for cultural bias. Teachers will also undergo training on how to teach Black history, she said.

» READ MORE: Educators in a dozen N.J. public school districts, including Haddon Heights, are testing a pilot curriculum to include instruction about the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and disabled people.

Several years ago, the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association lobbied unsuccessfully for the district to require a Black history course. Superintendent Joseph Meloche said the “power and value” of student voices made a difference this time.

“I am overwhelmed with joy,” Mahan said after the vote. “There is work to be done.”

The Amistad law requires all public schools to infuse African American history in subjects year-round. But it has not been widely implemented. New Jersey also requires public schools to teach about the Holocaust.