Demanding History

Why the Jefferson County school students are protesting

by Hannah Westerman


When I was in high school, I took the AP U.S. History (APUSH) exam. The final few days before the test, I crammed: I read synopses of dates and names over and over, and did hundreds of practice multiple-choice questions. And I did well on the test. But I remember very little of it and I know that if I were to take that same test now, my results would be terrible. It isn’t enough to be able to temporarily rattle off a lot of facts about American history. Students need to discuss history and think about it deeply, but the attitudes surrounding the AP test encouraged rapid cramming and a subsequent mental purge.        

When I heard that there was a new APUSH curriculum created to address these issues, I thought it was a great idea. Covering the entire history of the United States in a single year is not possible and attempting to do so requires sacrificing depth and analysis. The memorization of dates and names will possibly give a student a bright future as a trivia team member, but it will not give them real understanding about our country’s history. And that is what the College Board, which administers AP exams, set out to make clear eight years ago. 

In 2006, the College Board assembled a group of experienced college professors and high school teachers to redesign the APUSH curriculum. The redesign was supposed to address concerns that the AP course did not give enough guidance as to what would be on the exams, resulting in teachers attempting to rush through everything without deeper exploration. Teachers felt that students were forced to memorize for the exam instead of learning in a way that would prepare them for college.  

The redesign was finished and made public in 2012. Now, the new APUSH is supposed to make its debut in schools across the country. But this curriculum, six years in the making, is causing conflict, especially in Jefferson County (JeffCo), the second largest school district in Colorado. The new curriculum has been met with resistance by conservative school board members who claim that the course is centered on an ideology of “America-bashing.” They believe that the new curriculum over-emphasizes negative moments in U.S. history and leaves out important historical figures and events.

The authors of the redesign pointed out that the College Board is not proposing a rigid, fully structured curriculum, but rather a curriculum framework. In an open letter, the authors said, “Many of the comments we have heard about the framework reflect either a misunderstanding of U.S. history or a very limited faith in history teachers’ command of their subject matter.”

The authors did not believe it was necessary to specifically list certain figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Franklin or Dwight Eisenhower because it was obvious that any U.S. history course would cover them. These men, and many other important figures of U.S. history, were not included in previous AP frameworks, yet it was never before questioned if teachers would know that they were supposed to teach about them. 

Denver is not the only area criticizing the new framework. Texas has decided to reject the new curriculum altogether. Of course, those Texan students will still have to take the same AP test as all other students across the country. South Carolina has been petitioning the College Board to remove anti-Americanism from the curriculum.

The complaints in Denver are coming from three newly elected JeffCo school board members. The original proposal states that the instructional materials used in the schools should “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.” Furthermore, the proposal would allow this to be applied to all classes, not just APUSH.

The proposal was met with opposition from both teachers and students. “I don’t think my education should be censored. We should be able to know what happened in our past,” student Tori Leu said. One of the three board members who helped to create the controversial proposal, Julie Williams, was apparently surprised at the vehement negative reaction it received. In a statement posted on Facebook, Williams expressed disbelief at the claims that the proposal promotes censorship: “To be accused of censorship? Seriously? That is just ridiculous. I am advocating for just the opposite.”

Williams goes on to accuse the curriculum framework in conspiracy-like tones: “APUSH is new. This is important to state because some may not know it is new. It came into existence quite recently under dubious and secretive circumstances.” She continues: “APUSH rejects the history that has been taught in the country for generations. It has an emphasis on race, gender, class, ethnicity, grievance and American-bashing … when it comes to history, I believe all children graduating from an American school should know 3 things: American Exceptionalism, an understanding of U.S. History, and know the Constitution.”

 Elaine Gantz Berman, member of the Colorado State Board of Education , accused the JeffCo school board of taking “a piece of the Republican Party platform” and forcing it on students. Student Maggie Ramseur said, “The policies they are suggesting are ridden with political agendas, something that belongs in our curriculum about as much as religious agendas do.” 

The infamous proposal was made on Sep. 18, 2014. In response to both the review board proposal and a new teacher evaluation system, the teachers held a sickout on Sep. 19, which shut down two high schools. The following Tuesday, hundreds of students from six high schools staged a walk out. The irony was not lost on the students as they protested for their right to learn about protesting. During the demonstrations, students held up signs with phrases including “Teach the Truth” and “There is nothing more patriotic than protest.”

The protesting students will receive unexcused absences unless their parents call in to give permission for missing class. The superintendent Dan McMinimee met with some of the student protestors and publicly said, “I respect the rights of our students to express their opinions in a peaceful manner. I do, however, prefer that our students stay in class.”

But the students refused to just sit in class. They protests continued throughout the rest of the week, growing significantly in size. On the following Thursday, the demonstrations included nearly a thousand students. Then on Friday, the protests gained the official support of the College Board’s Advanced Placement Program.

“These students recognize that the social order can—and sometimes must—be disrupted in the pursuit of liberty and justice. Civil disorder and social strife are at the patriotic heart of American history—from the Boston Tea Party to the American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement. And these events and ideas are essential within the study of a college-level, AP U.S. History course, ” said the College Board.

The JeffCo school board members behind the proposal do not share this positive view of the protest. Board president Ken Witt called the students “pawns” of the teachers. Students didn’t appreciate being told that they aren’t capable of forming their own opinions and the school board dropped even lower in popularity. 

On Monday, September 29, teachers staged another “sickout” that again closed two high schools. The superintendent threatened disciplinary action if the teachers missed anymore school and said that the teachers would probably be docked a day’s pay. 

Two weeks of walkouts and demonstrations culminated in a JeffCo school board meeting the following Thursday. In an attempt to appease the critics, the proposal had been stripped of the lines about patriotism and civil disorder. However, this was not enough to silence the protests. Around 500 teachers, parents, students and community members gathered to demonstrate before the meeting. Once the meeting finally began, hundreds crammed into the JeffCo Board of Education headquarters. To accommodate the crowds, around 300 watched from outside as the meeting was projected onto a makeshift screen. The meeting began with over two hours of public comment. Students were finally able to speak directly to board members and prove that they were far more than just pawns. Parents stood against the board with the students. Head of the JeffCo PTA, Michele Patterson, told the board that “civil protest is one of the highest forms of patriotism.”

A compromising measure was approved by the board by a 3-2 margin. The compromise will reorganize two existing district content review committees instead of creating the brand new one outlined in the original proposal. The reorganized committee would contain student panelists. However, since the school board would vote to choose the panelists, the conservative majority would have control. They could censor out anyone with too loud of an opposing opinion.

The mixed victory means that the protests are not over for everyone. The day after the meeting, there was another demonstration. Because of threats of disciplinary action if teachers missed more class time, the protest was held after school. Around 100 people showed up to participate in the protest, a significantly smaller number than in previous events.

As for the board members who wanted the positive aspects of America emphasized, I can’t think of a better one than our right to free speech and demonstration. The students became a part of the history that they were trying to protect. But the fight has not been won. A review board is still being formed and the people who created the proposal are still the majority power. The community's issues with the Jefferson County School board have not been fully addressed or solved. Now, the students have a chance to continue their real-life history lesson by learning that protest is only the first step on the road to affecting change in their community.