PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The student activist group that has successfully convinced Providence leaders to provide more free bus passes to high school students and lobbied the state to slow down the use of high-stakes standardized testing in recent years is back.
This time, the Providence Student Union (PSU) is asking the school department to add an ethnic studies course to each of the city’s 10 high schools.
More than 75 students from the PSU and other student-led groups throughout the city kicked off their #OurHistoryMatters campaign Wednesday to make their school curriculum more culturally relevant during a rally in front of the Providence School Department on Westminster Street.
“Ethnic studies will help everyone learn about their own cultures, to better know themselves,” Diane Gonzalez, a student at Central High School, said during the rally. “It will help everyone learn about each other’s cultures and be more tolerant and understanding. And it will help students like me grow into powerful leaders in our community.”
More than 60% of Providence’s 24,000 students are Latino and 91% are non-white, according to the school department. Students and their families speak 31 different languages and come from 51 different countries.
The goal, students say, isn’t to change the way American history is taught, but to offer a more balanced curriculum overall. One student from E-Cubed Academy, Afaf Akid, said fewer than 10% of the pages in his history textbook are devoted to people of color.
Licelot Caraballo, another E-Cubed student who hails from the Dominican Republic, said he doesn’t want young people to “forget their rich history because they aren’t receiving classes that focus on diverse ethnic groups.”
“Learning about our roots is essential for us to strengthen our sense of identity,” Caraballo said. “I want people to feel connected to their history, to not lose it because they can’t access it.”
At first glance, school officials appear to be on board with the students.
Interim Supt. Chris Maher attended the rally, posting several tweets to express support for the proposal. He has also signed an online petition calling for ethnic studies courses in Providence.
After the rally, Maher told WPRI.com he thinks adding ethnic studies to the high school curriculum is “an awesome idea.” He said he plans to continue to meet with student leaders from across the city.
“Right now is the perfect time to bring this up,” Maher said. “We’re going to sit down with them and come up with how to make sure the diversity of Providence is reflected in our school curriculum.”
Mark Santow, a history professor and member of the Providence School Board, said he fully supports the student-led campaign, but indicated he’s like to see the district go even further.
“I want to change the way we teach history,” Santow said.