How Dayton-area schools teach about race — or not

Most schools give teachers plenty of autonomy.

Credit: Jordan Laird

Credit: Jordan Laird

Schools in the greater Dayton area largely don’t require discussion of current events related to racial justice or teach history related to racial equality from the last five decades, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.

Several area Republican state representatives are sponsoring at least one of the two Ohio House bills recently proposed to ban the teaching of “divisive concepts” around race. None of them responded to requests for comment.

Many local educators oppose the bills, saying we need to have more difficult conversations about race, not fewer.

“People have different experiences in America, based on their race, based on their gender, based on their religion,” said David Taylor, superintendent at Dayton Early College Academy. “And when we pretend that these differences aren’t there, when we don’t have meaningful dialogue, including as teenagers … what we’re doing is we’re helping to only perpetuate a singular story.”

Others worry schools will teach that all white people are oppressors and all Black people are victims.

Alice Marrs, a white mother of two children in Piqua City Schools and a third who graduated from the district, said: “I have not spent the last 26 years parenting my children to not judge others by the color of their skin just to have our school systems turn around and teach them to judge people by the color of their skin.”

Most schools’ curriculum doesn’t address modern systemic racism at all, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of hundreds of curriculum documents. Only one local school said it teaches critical race theory (in a language arts class that teaches many theories). But schools acknowledge that individual teachers’ approaches can vary significantly.

The Dayton Daily News Path Forward project investigates the most pressing issues in our community, including race and equity. This story examines how our region’s K-12 schools are teaching students about race and racism.

The Dayton Daily News requested records of school curriculums from 40 public school districts, two charter schools and four private schools in Montgomery, Greene, Warren and Miami counties. School administrators were also asked to complete a short survey. Of those, 36 districts and schools responded in some form.

Here are our major findings:

  • The state standards and thus the majority of local schools do not require social studies teachers to instruct on any racial justice events, issues or leaders after the Civil Right’s movement of the 1960s or discuss current events.
  • Many schools are instituting social emotional learning, often covering concepts like respect and inclusion but not more specific concepts like racism.
  • The vast majority of curriculum documents provided to the newspaper did not mention “critical race theory,” “white privilege,” or “anti-racism.”
  • Students learn about slavery and the Civil War largely in fourth and eighth grades. Many high school American history classes cover 1877 onward, with the only exception being a unit on the country’s founding documents (e.g. the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution).
  • Many local school districts already have a board of education policy on teaching controversial issues.

However, what is happening in individual classrooms is difficult to document since curriculums are treated as a minimum standard and most schools give teachers a lot of autonomy.

“Ohio’s state-adopted academic content standards … provide a basic framework,” Fairborn schools spokeswoman Pam Gayheart said. “Within this framework, each teacher uses the course of study in a manner best designed to meet the needs of the students for whom she or he is responsible.”

What is in the social studies curriculum

“Racism is not an overt topic covered on a regular basis,” said Shannon Cox, superintendent of the Montgomery County Educational Service Center. “Race and ethnicity come up frequently, formally and informally, as we work through novels (English classes), history lessons (i.e., Holocaust), health studies, or informally during social-emotional learning or character lessons.”

The Ohio Department of Education’s social studies content standards — which most local schools use as the base of their curriculum — are mixed in how they address racial issues.

One fourth-grade state standard says, “The 13 colonies came together around a common cause of liberty and justice.” Kettering schools use “Studies Weekly” as a primary resource, and that group’s fourth-grade curriculum goes further, to say the colonies formed a new nation “with a government founded on … equality for all people.”

The fourth-grade standards do not mention that “liberty and justice” or “equality for all people” did not apply to the roughly half-million Black slaves held in the colonies in the 1770s.

In eighth grade, one state standard makes clear that the economic development of the colonies was linked to “race-based slavery” and “the forced migration of Africans.” Another standard that year says “stereotypes and prejudices” had many consequences for minority groups and the entire U.S.

As far as post-Civil War racial issues, high school American history standards make no bones about the fact that after the 1870s, “racial discrimination was institutionalized.” Those standards also mention America’s post-World War II “struggle for racial and gender equality and the extension of civil rights.”

The ways that content is delivered to students, including discussion and classroom activities, can vary from school to school and teacher to teacher. For example, the eighth-grade social studies curriculum in New Lebanon schools does not list nine of the 26 standards, including the one about “stereotypes and prejudices.”

What is not in the social studies curriculum

Local schools’ curriculums cover little after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and most make no further mention of any events or leaders related to racial justice after the 1960s.

New Lebanon Local Schools Superintendent Greg Williams said the district has no prescribed content for current issues of race or racism because the topics are not in the state standards.

“Here’s how they teach it: It’s like, slavery was bad. And segregation was bad. And then Martin Luther King came, and then everything was fine and there’s never been racism in America again,” said Mawuena Nenonene, a 17-year-old African American rising senior at Beavercreek High School.

Central State University Provost F. Eric Brooks, an expert on American history, said not teaching about race issues after the Civil Rights movement allows students to think much of racism has been solved.

Experts point out that without covering race after 1968, students aren’t learning about the affirmative action debate, race under the Reagan administration and the reversing of many policies, the continued mass incarceration of Americans of color and the continued lack of elected Black leaders.

“You miss all these things that are terribly important to be able to explain some of the contemporary issues that are taking place now,” Brooks said.

That doesn’t mean teachers aren’t raising these issues. Among the books often read in English classes at Dunbar High School in Dayton is the autobiography “Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America,” by Nathan McCall. And Kevin Lydy, a social studies teacher at Yellow Springs Middle School, takes his students through history from different groups’ perspectives and discusses white privilege and systemic racism with his classes.

Social Emotional Learning

Over the last couple of years, schools have emphasized more social emotional learning, Cox said, an area where diversity and race issues can sometimes be brought up. Social emotional learning involves teaching students about such concepts as good decision making and building relationships, particularly with those who are different from you, Cox said.

For example, Cedar Cliff Superintendent Chad Mason said: “The Cedar Cliff SEL standards do not specifically address racism but rather empathy, compassion, diversity and tolerance toward all groups that are different than ourselves — both in ideas/viewpoints, and in racial stereotypes.”

Vast majority of schools not teaching critical race theory

Critical race theory is a term that has been bandied about lately in the national and local debate on teaching race in schools. Last month, a Mad River school board member Scott Huddle warned at a board meeting that critical race theory would soon be forced upon the nation’s students and likened it to “reverse race discrimination” and education under the Nazis.

The majority of local school administrators said their schools are not teaching critical race theory or they couldn’t answer the question because no definitive answer exists on what the term means.

“The phrase ‘critical race theory’ does not appear in the standards, nor are we aware of any consensus reached in academic circles as to what the term means and, therefore, are unsure what information would be responsive to your requests,” said Andrea Townsend, superintendent of West Carrollton City Schools.

Only one school, Dayton Early College Academy, a small charter school with a rigorous course of study, mentions critical race theory in its curriculum documents. DECA high school language arts students are taught numerous theories and lenses through which to analyze texts they read, including critical race theory.

“Critical race theory is merely the acknowledgement that race affects our lives today and has affected our history,” said Aaron Scott Johnson, instructional coach at DECA. “I think CRT is valuable as a tool to help educate students because we live racialized lives and educators have to prepare students to navigate the vastly complicated world … We cannot solve a problem until we name it and face it, and the data is pretty unequivocal regarding the systemic racism that is baked into our country’s history.”

In a document used by DECA high school’s language arts department titled “The Critical Lens Dictionary,” an entry on racism states that a common definition — differential treatment of people based on racial identity — falls short.

The document says: “Racism is prejudice plus power … To be racist (rather than simply prejudiced) requires having institutional, systemic power. In North America, white people have the institutional power … This definition does not mean individual people of color have no power but instead represents that the balance of power (in this country) is weighted against non-white citizens.”

School policies on divisive concepts

Ohio House Bill 327 seeks to prohibit teaching certain “divisive concepts.” Many local school districts already have a board of education policy on teaching controversial issues. Those policies generally say that “consideration of controversial issues has a legitimate place” in schools, while laying out the rules for doing so.

In many cases, districts’ policies say teachers “may express a personal opinion, but shall identify it as such,” and not try to persuade students to adopt the teacher’s point of view.

How should schools discuss race?

Mawuena and a handful of her classmates gave a presentation to the Beavercreek High School administrators in May about their experiences with discrimination at the school from students and teachers.

They say students are already having discussions about current events and race in the halls, before class and on social media —and it can get ugly. These students of color said in the past year, classmates have become even more likely to make blatantly racist comments, including using slurs.

Beavercreek schools regularly give character lessons to its students. The lessons discuss topics like treating others with respect, but Mawuena and her classmates believe the lessons should be more specific to be effective. That’s why they are working on putting together some lessons on anti-racism for the school to consider.

Lily Chen, a 17-year-old Asian American rising senior at Beavercreek High School, said she would also like to see more minority success stories taught and more discussion of current events.

“It’s so focused on the past … but we don’t talk about the now and what we do to change things,” she said.

When Rochonda Nenonene, co-program director of the Urban Teacher Academy at the University of Dayton and Mawuena’s mother, was studying to become a teacher in the 1980s, the ethos given to teachers was, “I don’t see color,” she said.

“Then you miss half of who I am if you’re going to tell me you don’t see color. Because you fail to recognize all the culture I’m bringing with me into the classroom and that’s a missed opportunity,” she said. “Students know when they’re being marginalized, they know when they’re not being given opportunities … We are asking schools to meet students where they are and have really frank conversations with them about race and how race impacts life.”

Marrs, whose kids go to Piqua schools, believes Ohio’s schools should teach students about historical injustices. But she doesn’t want kids to view themselves or others as victims based on things like skin color.

“If you look at generation, each one has gotten better, and continues to get better and now all of a sudden, we want to say we’ve made no steps forward, and everyone’s still a victim,” she said. “A person can only speak on what they see and I don’t know any racist people.”

Lawrence Burnley, vice president of diversity and inclusion at the University of Dayton, said schools need to talk about race more across the board in order to dismantle racism.

“That contemporary issues of race don’t show up in social studies curricula, that omission reinforces the erroneous idea that we are somehow in a post racial society,” he said. “And schools need to talk more about race from a historical perspective. One of the things that we fail to do in K through 12 education is to help students think critically about the invention of race. Race is a social construction, it is not biologically based. And I think a failure to do that undermines any efforts to disrupt and dismantle racism or systemic racism because we don’t know what it is.”