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Advocates call on Texas education officials to approve American Indian/Native Studies course

Patricia Lim
KUT News

Stephen Silva-Brave found out the Grand Prairie Independent School District near Dallas was planning to develop an American Indian/Native Studies course back in 2019. Silva-Brave, who is a citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, decided to attend a community meeting the district held in 2020.

"It was a huge meeting. There were so many community members there. There were people from Oklahoma," he said. "It was a great turnout."

Silva-Brave, whose kids attend Grand Prairie ISD schools, said he thought it was "cool" the district came to the community about putting together the course "instead of just having a couple of scholars write a curriculum."

He ended up joining a team tasked with developing the course Grand Prairie ISD began piloting during the 2021-2022 school year. He said one of the things he appreciated about the course is that it's not just focused on history.

“There’s some history in it but there’s also science, there’s geography, there’s culture," he said.

A school district must pilot a course before the state can consider whether to make it available to all districts in Texas. Round Rock ISD, for example, is currently piloting an Asian American studies course.

Grand Prairie ISD successfully piloted the American Indian/Native Studies class and now it's what's known as an innovative course. This means school districts statewide can offer it if their school boards approve. But there is one more step that would make it even easier for district to offer the class: a vote from the Texas State Board of Education creating statewide curriculum standards that provide guidance on which materials to use when teaching the course.

But SBOE members, who are meeting this week in Austin, are not considering statewide curriculum standards for the American Indian/Native Studies course, as anticipated.

As the Dallas Morning News reported, the previous SBOE Chair Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) had planned to begin reviewing the course this week, but new Chair Aaron Kinsey (R-Midland) decided to hold off. He was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott last December.

“The first reading for the Native American Studies course was postponed to allow more time to review its contents,” Kinsey said in a statement to KUT. “The State Board of Education works to ensure that any adopted course is of high quality for Texas students. Additional time for review will enable the Board to maintain this standard.”

Silva-Brave said he doesn’t understand Kinsey’s reasoning since the point of a first reading is for board members to get familiar with what’s in the curriculum.

“It feels like a gut punch because there’s so much enthusiasm around the course,” he said.

The group Texas Freedom Network is also concerned that the SBOE is not considering the course this week. Organizing Strategist Emerald Belmarez said she would like to see more ethnic studies courses made available to Texas students.

“As someone who took Mexican American studies a couple of years ago, right before graduating high school, this issue is near and dear to my heart,” she said.

The State Board of Education approved the Mexican American studies course in 2018; it was the first time members approved an ethnic studies class. The move made it easier for school districts to adopt the course because it established statewide curriculum standards. The SBOE approved an African American studies course two years later.

Belmarez pointed out offering these courses to an increasingly diverse student population is vital.

“It’s important that they see themselves reflected, represented and heard in their public schools through curriculum,” she said. “And I think it’s time that we stop trying to ignore … what true American history is.”

Grand Prairie ISD, for its part, has seen positive responses to its American Indian/Native Studies course. A district spokesperson shared some of the feedback students who have taken the class gave in an annual survey:

  • “This class made me learn and realize a lot of stuff I hadn't learned before. It made me see other types of point of views from what I had been taught before.”
  • “This class has made me more aware of the people around me rather than myself. … This class makes me want to learn about others and their cultures.”
  • “It made me remember my own roots and where I come from and the struggles and hardships [of] my parents and am more grateful.”
  • “I know many people that are Native American and this class has shown me more ways to show respect."
  • “Helped me by not being afraid of who I am as a Native American.”

Silva-Brave said as the fight over what’s taught in schools becomes increasingly politicized, he hopes this class is not a casualty.

“We’re just asking that the course … go to the first reading and if for some reason someone thinks that there’s problems with it, let’s talk about it,” he said. “After the first reading, the public gets to review the course and offer public comment. To me that’s democracy.”

Silva-Brave said he and other supporters of the course plan to ask the SBOE to put the course on the agenda for their next meeting in April.

Copyright 2024 KUT News. To see more, visit KUT News.

Becky Fogel is the newscast host and producer for “Texas Standard.” She came to the show from Science Friday in New York where she produced segments on zombie microbiomes and sneaker technology. She got her start in radio at KWBU-FM in Waco and she’s happy to be back in the great state of Texas.