Students campaign for ethnic studies in Providence

PSU organizes rally, petition to protest lack of representation in local high school curricula

Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Jan. 20, high school students protested outside of the Providence School Department headquarters for the inclusion of ethnic studies in Providence public school curricula. Several other student and community activism organizations ­— including Youth In Action and Direct Action for Rights and Equality — also participated in the rally.

Members of the Providence Student Union led a campaign titled “#OurHistoryMatters” in an effort to bring awareness to the gaps in their education. “Over the past few months and years, a lot of students felt like they weren’t represented in their education,” said Marcel Mensah, a student at Classical High School and a member of the PSU.

What began as a discussion among students progressed into a press conference providing students with a platform to raise awareness and garner support from the community, he said. “We hope to have ethnic studies courses in all of the high schools,” Mensah added.

The press conference resulted in a lot of conversation, both online and offline, in support of the campaign, he said. Furthermore, though the adult-led PSU helped organize the protest, the event was entirely student-initiated and student-run.

The PSU created a petition on titled “Ethnic Studies for Providence Now!” that currently has more than 500 signatures — over halfway to its goal of 1,000. According to the site, the 1,192-page American History textbook used in Providence schools includes only 55 pages about people of color.

The PSU was founded in 2010 and has been growing ever since. “Our primary goal is to empower students in Providence high schools” and help them achieve things they may not believe they can do, Mensah said. He added that the organization is working to set up meetings with the Providence School Board to develop a plan going forward.

“The school board hasn’t taken any sort of official position on it yet, but I’m a big supporter of what the PSU is trying to do,” said Mark Santow, professor of history at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and a member of the Providence School Board. “This semester there won’t be changes, but it’s quite possible that we’ll see some ethnic studies programs in high schools and middle schools” in the future, he added.

Santow said he is hopeful that improved curricula and a more diverse teaching staff will better serve the student body. Currently, the Providence public school student body consists of over 90 percent students of color, while the teachers are over 80 percent white. “Research shows that ethnic studies courses have a larger impact when they are taught by teachers of color,” Santow said.

The campaign represents more than just a change in history classes, he added. “If you can see yourself in your country’s past, you can better see yourself in your country’s future.”

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