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Lt. Col. James Walker teaches an African-American history class Friday at Austin High School. Students are, from left, Zeikeia Baldwin, Nick Williams and A.J. Moon.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Lt. Col. James Walker teaches an African-American history class Friday at Austin High School. Students are, from left, Zeikeia Baldwin, Nick Williams and A.J. Moon.

Schools seek boost in African-American class enrollment

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com 340-2432

After four years offering an African-American Studies class, school officials say interest is not as good as they would like.

Four years ago, Decatur became the only school system in the area to offer the class in the two high schools and three middle schools. The class is a one-credit elective.

Decatur High School doesn't have a class this year because of lack of interest and Austin High has 10 students in its class.

The class has been more successful at the middle schools, although Brookhaven and Cedar Ridge report a drop in interest. Oak Park Middle School is the only one of the five to report a steady enrollment.

Tommy Sykes, the Decatur school board's only black member, pushed for the program.

"It's not doing as well as it needs to be," Sykes said. "But I'm not surprised. I don't think administrators are pushing the class as much as they should."

School officials cite various reasons for drop in interest. Decatur High Principal Mike Ward said the state's core curriculum requirements don't leave time for the class.

Principal Don Snow and retired Col. James Walker said Austin students have the same scheduling problem, plus they said the class is competing with other programs like JROTC, band, foreign language, robotics and International Baccalaureate.

"I've got JROTC cadets who would take the class if they had time," Walker said.

At Cedar Ridge, Principal Beth Weinbaum believes it's a one-year downturn due to a change in teachers. Eighth-graders also have to give up a popular technology class to take African-American Studies.

Brookhaven Principal Larry Collier said enrollment stays between 10 and 15. He requires students to write an essay to get in and that keeps numbers low.

"I want great people in there who will work, and not open the door to someone who wants to cruise through with no effort, so we have to put them out later with disciplinary issues," said Collier.

Collier said he would be willing to discuss ways to increase enrollment in the class.

Oak Park Principal Dwight Satterfield said he has been pleased with enrollment, which averages about 20. African-American Studies is in the middle on enrollment when compared to other electives at his school.

The enrollment is almost all black students. One white and two Asians are in the four classes this year. All said they usually have a few non-black students enroll.

"I think most white students view the class as a heritage class for African-Americans," Collier said.

Sykes said administrators need to do a better job of getting across to the students that learning about all cultures is important. He took an African-American class in college and said he would have taken a Hispanic-American class if available.

"I think you need to know as much about different cultures as possible, if we're going to live together peacefully," Sykes said. "(Learning cultures) enhances our ability to get along and have a better social life."

Decatur began the program without a textbook and brought in a professor from The University of Alabama at Birmingham to give professional development. There is a textbook, but Cedar Ridge teacher Lavaris Thomas said 60 or 70 percent of the book focuses on slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.

Due to this shaky beginning, the teachers developed curriculums for the class. All begin with the beginning of man in Africa. Some teachers spend more time talking about slavery, while Walker touches on the subject but quickly moves on to "more positive" aspects of African-American history.

"I try to teach history without hate," Walker said. "I want the kids to understand that we're all human, mistakes were made in the past and we need to be forward-looking people."

Collier suggests the school system needs to discuss a consistent curriculum for the classes and decide what they should teach at each level. He said students should be able to take African-American Studies in middle school and then take it again in high school, gaining different information at both levels.

The Austin students said they believe the class is worth it. A.J. Moon and Jamari Jones said the class changed their perspective on life and school. They said they now take their studies more seriously after learning about what their ancestors sacrificed.

"This class makes you more confident, and it makes you want to work harder to take advantage of the educational opportunities they didn't get," Jones said.

Oak Park teacher Catrena Jackson said she tries to give students a sense of their history while trying to influence their futures.

"Hopefully, they'll see they could be a part of American history and they see their own potential," Jackson said. "If they know how much their ancestors struggled to overcome, then maybe they could, too. Maybe this could increase their self-esteem and personal value."

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