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Detroit Public Schools: True role models

Elementary students encounter familiar stories in a customized curriculum that helps then understand the bigger world

Detroit Public Schools: True role models

A few years ago, elementary students in Detroit Public Schools didn't even have a social studies curriculum. Now, as 55,000 K-2 students in this diverse city start to learn about their surroundings, histories and their own cultures, they are given their own role models and sense of identity in the district's innovative, customized K-2 social studies program. The textbooks used are created specifically for Detroit, and they show pictures of youths in the city, American Indians in their native dress, explanations of holidays such as Kwanzaa and descriptions of families in Africa. The allure for students is that these books are anything but run-of-the-mill texts that explain what can be considered typical white traditions.

"You have to be an owner of history to enjoy history," says Dahia Shabaka, a former teacher who became director of the district's social studies curriculum seven years ago. "If you never see yourself in history, especially in the earlier grades, it's hard for you to buy into that concept."

In a district where 92 percent of students are African-American, Shabaka says, "I wanted the kids to understand that ... they live in a world that is not [primarily] African-American. How do you live together and how do you learn to live with others? They have a rich legacy and history. But there are other cultures. And we learn to respect this kind of stuff. That's what we hope they get from this."

Customized Curriculum

The textbooks were published by Metropolitan Teaching and Learning Company (, an African-American-owned publisher of textbooks and instructional materials tailored to urban

students and teachers from pre-K to middle school. Formerly named Curriculum Concepts, the company has been around for 25 years but only recently discovered the importance of such tailored books for urban kids, says Reginald Powe, Metro's president and CEO.

"Three years ago, we looked at the greatest need we perceived in education and that was the achievement gap between urban kids and the rest of the country. Reading and math were the big ones," Powe says. Metro books are now found in many urban districts, including Chicago, New York, Houston and Atlanta.

Introduced in September 1999 in Detroit, the curriculum combines a research-proven, step-by-step learning approach. "This program is the first customized social studies program in the country developed specifically for urban kids," Powe says.

"You're motivating [children when they see] images of themselves and their surroundings," Powe says. "If you don't have children of color or very few of them in the books, and they don't see themselves in their own environment, it's difficult to relate to. They want to see kids that look like them and environments that look like theirs."

For example, in the "Family" textbook program, a family is headed by the grandfather. "It reflects the real family," Powe says. "Every school district has a right to get the kind of books they want and need for their children. ...[This] reflects the city of Detroit, their curriculum and the Detroit objective."

Learning More than Social Studies

Shabaka remembers that when she first became social studies director, the district had nearly ignored teaching social studies and didn't even have a core curriculum or text materials for the subject. On top of that, major publishers failed to prioritize elementary social studies, Shabaka says. "Even though we said they were taking social studies, they were not."

So, she and staff members, along with a committee of Detroit educators, worked with the state to develop core curriculum objectives to match the state's social studies standards.

A curriculum was finally put in place in 1994.

"Social studies is important for a number of reasons," Shabaka says. "It's one of the base courses for informational text reading. ...Social studies can be a foundation for improved reading. Also, we live in a global world and children have to know where we are. They hear people talk on the news ... and they need to know about diversity and different people. They also get American values in social studies. You don't get that anywhere else in the curriculum."

Vision into Reality

When the district started to review textbooks for its core curriculum, Board of Education members found a lot of "white" men and white traditions that had "very little to do with African-Americans and a whole lot of other people," Shabaka says. "There were no role models for the kids."

So the district found Metro and used its own core curriculum as a "guideline for writing the books," Shabaka says. "We knew exactly what we wanted," she says.

A committee of educators, primarily K-2 social studies teachers, wrote the lessons, which included state standards, to create the textbooks. Metro edited to some extent, Shabaka says. Metro then supplied the photographs and artwork. The textbook's standards-based, interactive lessons cover civic responsibility, the consequences of not having rules, and major events that have occurred in Detroit. One lesson asks children to put the major events and the development of their community in chronological order, Shabaka says.

Theme books, including Africa and You, offer kindergartners self- and cultural awareness. The textbooks, named Families for first graders and Neighborhoods for second graders, help steer them to consider life beyond their own environments. They explore different holidays, such as Kwanzaa, a spiritual holiday rooted in the first harvest celebrations in various cultures in Africa around Christmas time, as well as Hanukkah.

The publisher also includes photographs of people living in the district, children playing, children studying in the classroom and a former school principal at work. Families of different cultures and backgrounds, including families in Mexico, China, Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, are included.

"There are many things all people need to live," Shabaka says about the universal lessons of books. "Other things people want. In a family, people work together to get what they need and what they want."

Although there are not yet test scores or other indicators of success to prove or disprove the effectiveness of the textbooks, Shabaka says social studies recently became a part of the statewide assessment tests. Overall, students "seem to be doing well" and are likely more excited about learning, she says.

"One of the selling points is that students in social studies would do better in the reading test," Shabaka says. "Informational text is more difficult to read. ... We emphasize reading in social studies. It's one of our objectives, informational text, that kids need to understand."

Angela Pascopella,, is features editor