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Detroit public schools to run an audit of diversity in English class reading

Children in a classroom
Mercedes Mejia
Michigan Radio
More than 70% of charter school leaders surveyed expect to leave their schools in five years, according to a study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

This story was updated on June 8, at 1:00 p.m.  

The Detroit public school system will begin taking stock of the diverse perspectives included in high school English curricula this fall as part of a broader effort by the district for a community-driven reassessment of the perspectives presented through literature. 

“Representation matters,” said Naomi Khalil, who serves as the Deputy Executive Director of the Equity, Advocacy, and Civil Rights Division of the Detroit Public Schools Community District. 

“When you see yourself in literature, you have an increased ability to relate to what is being discussed, as well as to imagine yourself in possible scenarios that would be similar to the characters,” said Khalil. 

The audit will be funded through a $654,000 grant from the Skillman Center, as reportedby The Detroit Free Press. The audit will be followed by an engagement period that will allow for community feedback through various avenues such as a task force, surveys, and one-on-one meetings with teachers. 

Khalil told Michigan Radio that the effort to introduce more diverse perspectives into the Detroit public school curriculum is not something that followed after a renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, but instead has been part of a years-long effort to make the voices presented in Detroit classrooms more reflective of the students in those classrooms, the vast majority of whom are Black. 

Khalil said a similar effort to the one that will begin for high school curricula took place for 8th grade curricula last year. One example of the changes it brought about was the addition of poetry and essays reflecting on the N-word to the students’ reading of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which includes usage of the racial slur. 

“There's this misperception that you're somehow going to take out somebody in order to add somebody,” Khalil said. "Our approach is, how do we make sure that we center the voices of the people that are reflective of our community, as well as to include as many perspectives as possible?” 

The audit comes at a time when efforts to approach American history through the lens of race — a field of study known as “critical race theory” — has become mired in controversy. At the center of the debate is The New York Times’ “1619 Project” which aimed "to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative."

Michigan Representative Lana Theis (R-Brighton) introduced legislation that would keep the K-12 curriculum developed as an offshoot of the 1619 Project out of classrooms. Similar bills have been introduced in nearly a dozen states.

“Critical race theory is an invention of the extremist political left that has manipulated academia for decades,” Theis said in a statement announcing her bill, adding that coursework tied to that academic approach to history promotes “a divisive, identity-based ideology.” 

Detroit Public Schools’ Khalil called the bill introduced by Theis part of “an agenda to silence.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the audit of high school English curriculum used by Detroit Public Schools Community District was being funded by a $645 million grant from the Skillman Foundation. That is incorrect. The grant amount is $654,000. The amount has been corrected above. 

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.