Last May, after George Floyd was killed in police custody and nationwide protests for social justice began, East High School Superintendent Shaun Nelms challenged his colleagues across Monroe County to teach students about Rochester's history of segregation and disparity.
"I would also say that the death of Daniel Prude in Rochester was also a reminder that this work is critically important," Nelms added, referring to the man who died last March after Rochester police restrained him.
Nelms' vision will materialize this spring when eighth-, 11th-, and 12th-grade students in every district in the county will receive the same anti-racist classroom lessons.
The curriculum was developed by the University of Rochester's Center for Urban Education Success and representatives of each of the county's school districts.
Students will be exploring central questions within the context of local history from the 1964 uprising to the present day. They will look at media headlines to consider how words unite or divide people and learn about school funding and segregation when they discuss whether all children in Monroe County receive an equitable education. Another part of the curriculum will detail historical housing practices and ask students to decide whether they affect the way people live today.
"This is not to have students think one way or the other," Nelms said. "It's an opportunity to provide them an opportunity to have compelling conversations about topics that they may or may not be having in other settings."
Some critics, according to Nelms, have called the anti-racist instruction "indoctrination."
"It's not that," he said. "This is American history. When certain aspects of our curriculum are not embedded in what we do daily, I truly believe it's done by design. It's intentional. You have to make an effort to exclude someone from history."
Nelms believes this may be the first time all Monroe County school districts have partnered on a common curriculum for students.
"This is not being done anywhere else in the state," Nelms said.
A group of students will vet the instructional units to determine how engaging they are. Nelms said the course material will be expanded and developed over time.
The pilot phase of the program begins in schools this spring. He said history teachers across Monroe County are slated to undergo training for the course this summer.