Social studies teacher Adrian Solis is rewriting history.
“For this class it's like I’m so excited to see what the kids are going to think,” said Solis, who teaches at Henry Abbott Technical High School in Danbury.
Next month he’ll help present the first statewide curriculum for Black and Latino history to the state board of education for approval. It's called the "African American/Black and Puerto Rican/Latino Course of Studies." His goal for students:
“Getting them to see there’s more to history than what you’ve just been taught your whole life.”
In May of 2019, the state passed a law requiring schools to offer a course in Black and Latino history. Solis is one of a hundred people who brought it to life.
The course would be the first with a universal statewide curriculum since Connecticut school districts determine their education courses locally. As a Black and Latino history class, it will also be the first in the country.
It will be an elective option for high school students in their junior or senior year. Solis is currently offering a version of the course to his students, who helped develop the curriculum.
“I think that first day really formed a bond between myself and the students,” said Solis, describing the moments when students felt comfortable enough to talk about issues they’ve had being minorities in school. He told his students, “everything you're experiencing right now is what I experienced 20 years ago in the classroom and I couldn't share it with anyone.”
Students across the state pushed for this bill to become law. Hamden students Madison Chelgren and Darius Cummings said they’ve been looking for more diversity in their studies.
“You usually learn about slavery and the civil rights movement and then I mean, that’s it. And there’s just, I feel, so much more to that,” said Chelgren.
“The fact that we only learn about these two big things, the emancipation and the end of segregation, it’s disturbing,” said Cummings.
Darius said for students of color, lessons on topics like Huck Finn and the KKK can be repetitive, and at times uncomfortable.
“I guess it works for a lot of people, especially when the target audience has only two people who would hear that story at home,” said Cummings. “My grandma, when I was little, told me a story about how she would see 'KKK' on a bus as she was walking around New York.”
Cummings said the new course could help balance out what some students already know versus what some curriculum guides say they should learn.
The course was developed by the State Education Resource Center of Connecticut along with more than 100 experts. It will focus on aspects of national and local history.
“We will really be involved in exploring and discovering the history of people who strive for equality over the years,” said Paquita Jarman-Smith, a SERC consultant who worked on the Black history portion of the course. “Who the Black Panthers were in New Haven is going to be a part of it. Who from the NAACP in Hartford was involved in history.”
Nitza Diaz worked on the Latino portion and said there are units that will help students understand their impact.
“For example we have a unit that says that 60,000 Latinos turn 18 every month and they get to register to vote. How powerful is that?” said Diaz.
They consulted with teams of historians, scholars, and teachers like Solis to provide content. They also worked with students who were very specific about what they wanted to learn. Some were from Solis’ class at Henry Abbott Technical High School and they said they wanted to learn more than oppression of their people. They told developers they wanted to know more about those who overcame, made change, and who inspire.
“I just appreciate that because they didn’t just say oh we’re going to teach this this and this and that’s it. They spoke to us, they said ‘how do you feel, what would you guys like to learn about? And why do you want to learn it?’” said Noelia Nunez, a senior at Henry Abbott Technical High School.
They said a lot of high school is about what they have to learn, but Solis’ current pilot class is different. It’s not a class about what’s required. It covers what they’re excited to learn.
“People of color that take this course, I feel like after they take it, they will feel more empowered, like more outgoing in a way,” said senior Alexandra Molina.
“To recognize the youth and how important this course implementation is to them is our charge,” said Michelle Lebrun-Griffin, a SERC consultant who also worked on the curriculum. “Every day when we get tired, when it gets difficult, when we’re under pressure with timelines etc., that’s what stays with us.”
They’ve also developed a guide to help teachers navigate difficult conversations.
“Your phrasing, your sentence structure your tone, it’s all very sensitive and it should be addressed sensitively,” said Cummings.
It will be the first statewide Black and Latino history course in the country and these students are honored to be a part.
“I’m just so proud of everything, the course and him,” said Jeilyn Paulino, an Abbott Technical High School senior who’s also in Solis’ class. “I feel like it’s going to be something good for everybody.”