A Bolder Past for a Brighter Future

“History is more than just the study of things that have already happened. It’s a set of analytical skills and competencies that is necessary for understanding and navigating the world.” -James Ikeda, Educational Consultant


Next year, in a groundbreaking move, Lexington High School will be offering two new courses: one in African American history, and one in Asian American history. From conception to syllabus, students and faculty are equally involved in their design.

It’s unusual for courses like these to be offered at the high school level. It’s all happening because of student activism.

Back in February of 2019, five METCO students in the 2020 graduating class—Annabelle Charles, Takirah Clark, Kyra Cooper, Naiomi Harris, and Alea Turner—were exploring with METCO Academic Support Teacher Gretchen Segars what LHS did to observe Black History Month. The more they looked into it, the more they realized that recognition of African American history was pretty much relegated to February.

“We felt like a lot of what we knew about Black culture we either learned ourselves through internet research, or it was told to us by other Black people. We weren’t educated through the school on Black topics,” says Kyra Cooper, LHS ’20, who is now majoring in global finance at Suffolk University . In contrast to Lexington, Cooper’s friends in Boston were covering Black culture and history in school. “When I would talk to kids from Boston Public Schools, it felt like something was missing from my education,” Cooper says.

Kyra Cooper LHS ‘20
When I thought about Black history education in Lexington, the only picture I remember was a diagram of slaves packed into a boat. It’s kind of upsetting that the curriculum only showed the pain that Black people went through. They didn’t show the creativity that we had, like the stuff we had invented. It was a very awkward position to be in, especially when you’re the only Black person sitting in a class full of other people who aren’t Black. You almost feel like a spectacle. A teacher would say something like, oh, slaves were punished for doing this, this, and this. And then you get the side-eye from the kid sitting next to you, people looking at you to see how you’re reacting to these things. … I think this new education is very beneficial, not just for the mental state of Black students, but for keeping white students and people who aren’t Black educated. It helps to prevent microaggressions, which is something that I had to deal with a lot when going through the Lexington Public School system.”

With Segars’ encouragement, the students started thinking that LHS might offer courses in Black literature and history. “They were saying, ‘This is essential to our well-being in school,’” Segars says. “‘We need to be able to have a space where we can be centered for a moment, where Blackness can be celebrated and hard conversations can be had.’”

But the students wanted more. They wanted better representation throughout the school system. They wanted Lexington Public Schools to hire more teachers of color.

Merkeb Amanuel LHS ’22
I think it’s exciting that they’re offering African American history and Asian American history. The fact that these classes are starting to enter our curriculum I think will set a precedent for the future for more cultural classes to be in our schools.”

So, they started a petition drive, with one petition seeking the creation of courses in African American literature and history, and the other seeking greater diversity in hiring. They set up stations with music in the cafeteria, explained their goals to their classmates, and within a week, each petition garnered around four hundred signatures. They delivered the course petition to the heads of the English and Social Studies departments, and the hiring petition to the Superintendent’s office.

“They [students]were saying, ‘We need to have a space where we can be centered for a moment, where Blackness can be celebrated and hard conversations can be had.’” -Gretchen Segars, METCO Academic Support Teacher

The English department was already offering an East Asian literature course, and got right on board with the idea of a course in African American literature. English Department Head Jane Day calls both courses, which are year-long electives, a “resounding success.” They are taken by students of all colors, backgrounds, and nationalities. The same is true of the women’s literature class; it’s not only girls that enroll. “I’m really proud of that, that our students recognize the value in these courses, that they are highlighting voices that are not their own, but they want to learn about them, and they’ll spend a whole year digging in,” Day says.

Min Feldman LHS ’22
I am proud to be joining a legacy of students who pioneered the way, and hopefully being an example to the freshmen or underclassmen or the middle schoolers who might

The students were among the catalysts for other diversity efforts, including a professional development forum for teachers, and the school system’s hiring of a diversity, equity, and inclusion officer. In 2019, they received the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Award, presented by School Superintendent Julie Hackett before Lexington Town Meeting.

Charles, Clark, Cooper, Harris, and Turner never got to take the courses they lobbied for; they graduated before the literature course was offered, and they went off to college without knowing the fate of their demands for an African American history course or the hiring of more teachers of color. (Lexington Public Schools has been making steady progress with diversity hiring, but is still far from representing student demographics—see below.)


“We weren’t really doing it for ourselves,” Cooper says. “We were doing it for the kids who were younger than us.” And they were doing it for all students, regardless of background. “Not only is it education for Black students, but it’s also education for non-Black students,” Cooper says. “If you’re learning about other ethnicities or other nationalities, and you’re familiar with that topic, you’re going to know right from wrong.”

Ameera Suttles LHS ’24
“One thing I’m excited for is for everyone to get a chance to learn. I feel like history is just a big story of everyone’s different perspectives.”

But Cooper and her friends left a legacy. By their example, they inspired other students to pick up the mantle. In the fall of 2021, Phoebe Tian, then a junior, took action that would lead to the formation of the two new history courses. In the wake of rising violence against Asian Americans across the country, she organized the Asian American and Pacific Islander History Inclusion Benefit Concert at LHS. “After that, Dr. Dunne reached out to everyone,” Tian says.

Tian is referring to Kerry Dunne, the new head of LHS’s Social Studies department. Dunne invited interested students into focus groups to create the courses in African American history and Asian American history. She met regularly with dozens of students, many from the Diversity Equity & Inclusion Student Council, during the weekly free study and enrichment period known as I Block. Dunne also made available a Google doc where students could contribute their thoughts and ideas.

Grace Ou LHS ’23
“I think that having students collaborate with the teachers can really foster an environment where students are actually interested in the curriculum and actually want to engage specifically in areas talking about culture.”

“Let me give you an example of how this was so valuable,” Dunne says. “In the African American history course focus group, we were talking about, what do you most want to see in this course? And there was an African American student, Nathanael Esperance, who raised his hand. And he said, ‘The thing I most want to see emphasized in this course is Black success. I want students to be learning about African Americans who made major contributions that were very positive to this country, and who are right now, today, continuing to make positive contributions to our country.’” Dunne says, “I literally grabbed a pen and I wrote ‘Black success’ and underlined it twice. And we used that phrase in the course description. I would not have come up with that on my own.”

“An example of other input we got was with the Asian American history course,” Dunne says. “It was very important to students to see the South Asian presence in that class.” Students made clear that, in both classes, they wanted to learn about personages from local history as well.

Chuning Yang LHS ‘23
We usually learn about the Bill of Rights, the Revolutionary War, just mostly U.S. and European-focused ideas. I feel like I never learned much about Asian or African history, and as I became older, I realized how little I learned about Asian and African history.”

Students helped write the course descriptions, which are published in the LHS Program of Studies. Both courses are one-semester electives, and will be taught for the first time next year. Dunne expects they will be fully enrolled. The curriculum development work will be accomplished this summer, supported by a $10,000 grant from the Lexington Education Foundation. The grant will pay for six workshop days for two teachers, plus honoraria of $100 to each of six students for their work reviewing and selecting books and course materials. Further funding for the Asian American history course will come from the benefit concert organized by Tian. Dunne will match that with regular department funds for the African American history course. A substantial portion of the grant will pay for a consultant who will mentor the two teachers as they develop the courses and teach them for the first time.

The consultant is James Ikeda, a high school history teacher, community-college adjunct professor, and doctoral student in history at Northeastern University. He created and teaches an Asian American history course at Bunker Hill Community College and an African American history course at Quincy High School. “History,” he says, “is more than just the study of things that have already happened. It’s a set of analytical skills and competencies that is necessary for understanding and navigating the world.”

Phoebe Tian LHS ‘23
We wanted to make sure that in the first Asian American history course, all the core cultures and all the people from that area are represented—not just East Asian, but Southeast Asian, South Asian, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities. And we also wanted the course to cover not just civil rights activism and social movements, but also the modern experience of culture and immigration, and of the experiences of Asian Americans living here. I think that’s what makes this course so unique and diverse and basically amazing.”

Both the English and the Social Studies departments are increasingly adding the voices of Asian Americans and African Americans to their required courses. These new specialized electives are opportunities for students to go deeper. Ikeda has a distinct perspective on why this is crucial: American history is frequently taught as having a prevailing master narrative, which typically either omits the history of those Ikeda calls “minoritized” people, or merely uses their history to fill out the narrative. That approach, Ikeda believes, blocks important epiphanies. “I don’t think, just for an example, of Asian American history as a corrective where you are modifying a master narrative,” he says. Instead, he thinks it is an opportunity to reconceptualize history to reveal new truths about the past. “There doesn’t have to be a single story that contains all historical truth, but in fact historical truth is multitudinous enough that you need to have a lot of different entry points,” he says.

Isaac Ostrow LHS ’22
“There was a passage about the Trail of Tears [the 5,000+-mile forced march of some 100,000 Native Americans in 1830, which killed 15,000 people] which minimized the scale of the atrocity and the forced eviction and, effectively, genocide, and said that a positive consequence was that it brought American democracy to more parts of the American continent, which seems so shortsighted and inappropriate and wrong. There are so many ways that is an issue, but that was in my AP history textbook. Our history curriculum and certainly the AP history curriculum doesn’t go far enough at all.”

In other words, these new courses have the potential not only to broaden students’ understanding of the past and to see themselves made visible within the American story. These new courses may also lead to a more sophisticated appreciation for the discipline of history by students and faculty alike.

Perhaps that’s ultimately the power of what LHS grads Annabelle Charles, Takirah Clark, Kyra Cooper, Naiomi Harris, and Alea Turner started in 2019: the rigorous, enriching opening of minds that these courses will bring to our high school, and that our graduates will give to the world as they launch into life.



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