Inland Empire educators aim to teach Black history all year long

While many Inland Empire schools observe Black History Month in February, innovative teachers are blending African American history into lessons all school year.

Nalik Davis Jr., who teaches ethnic studies at Rialto’s Eisenhower High School, is one such educator.

“Black history is ingrained and embedded in the curriculum throughout the year,” Davis said. “It’s not just a one-month thing for us.”

In Murrieta, Rail Ranch Elementary School third-grade teacher Marguerite Rucker looks for ways to incorporate Black history into teaching whenever and wherever it fits — including in such subjects as reading, math and science.

When she teaches history, Rucker said she puts the African American experience in the context of U.S. history.

  • Ethnic studies teacher Nalik Davis Jr. poses in his Eisenhower High School classroom in Rialto on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Ethnic studies teacher Nalik Davis Jr. is seen Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022, in his classroom at Eisenhower High School in Rialto. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Nalik Davis Jr. teaches Black history to his students at Eisenhower High School in Rialto on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Nalik Davis Jr. teaches Black history to students at Eisenhower High School in Rialto on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Jasmin Young, an assistant professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside, said she encounters many students who ask, “How come I didn’t learn this before?” (Courtesy of UC Riverside)

  • Nalik Davis Jr. teaches a Black history lesson to his students at Eisenhower High School in Rialto on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)



“Black history is everyone’s history,” she said during a recent video meeting of Murrieta Valley’s African-American Parent Advisory Council. “We’re not just teaching Black history, we’re teaching the history of our country.”

Rucker, whose two grown children went through Murrieta Valley schools, is a council co-lead.

California’s education standards call for “aspects of the Black experience” to be incorporated into all subjects and be addressed throughout the school year, Riverside Unified School District spokesperson Diana Meza said.

In anticipation of Black History Month, the Riverside district gave teachers in late January extra lessons on Black historical figures and achievements, Meza wrote in an email.

What students are actually taught, however, varies widely from classroom to classroom across the region, said Wil Greer, director of equity and targeted student achievement for the San Bernardino City Unified School District.

Much, he said, depends on the creativity of teachers.

It shows. Many students go to college with scant knowledge about such crucial historical events in the lives of African Americans as reconstruction and passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, said Jasmin Young, a UC Riverside assistant professor of ethnic studies.

“They will come in and know that Martin Luther King had a dream,” and little else, Young said.

So, in meeting students where they are, Young introduces basic concepts — and expands on them.

At the same time, there are examples of K-12 teachers around the Inland Empire who creatively — and thoroughly — teach Black history. Special events this past month have accented those efforts.

A couple weeks ago, for example, Greer attended an eighth grade Advancement Via Individual Determination class at San Bernardino’s Del Vallejo Middle School, in which the teacher called students’ attention to a newspaper article about historically Black colleges and universities. The teacher said those institutions are an option for African American students looking to continue their education beyond high school, Greer said.

“It was one teacher thinking outside the box and saying, ‘We’re going to bring this in and have a discussion about it,’” he said.

In the Moreno Valley Unified School District, where 13% of students are Black, Mountain View Middle School recently staged an African American Career Day with about 40 professionals — surgeons, government officials, information technology analysts, musicians, graphic design artists and law enforcement officers — in an interactive Zoom program.

“Our goal was to inspire the students to see beyond their present and make plans for their future,” Mountain View Principal Marissa Smith said.

In Murrieta, students in Rucker’s class each picked a historical African American figure to research and write a report about. A few students — along with those in other third-grade classes — shared details about the people they researched with the student body Friday, Feb. 25, and kids guessed who they were describing, Rucker said.

Murrieta students aren’t just learning Black history by doing reports. There are activities, too. For example, students sang “We Shall Overcome” — the anthem of the civil rights movement — a cappella style in Rucker’s class, she said.

Rucker also did a lesson on the geography of Africa and how it relates to North America and explained the term African American.

Opportunities to present Black history are expanding as Murrieta Valley officials work to broaden curriculum and bring new books into the classroom, she said. That is a response to parents’ demand in summer 2020 to offer more African American content after the disclosure in June 2020 of a racist social media chat involving Vista Murrieta High School students — and administrators’ promise to meet that demand. That disclosure came days after George Floyd was killed under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, sparking widespread protests and a national discussion on social justice.

In Rialto, Davis said Eisenhower High School students gathered this month to discuss notable achievements by Black people, how they are represented in the media and the mental health challenges faced by Black communities.

While Eisenhower celebrates Black History Month, Davis said school officials have made a point of building an “action component” into festivities.

As for the ethnic studies course he teaches, Davis said it is designed for ninth graders, but students in upper grades attend, too. He covers traditional topics such as slavery and the civil rights movement. Davis also delves into the contributions Black residents have made in various areas, including inventions, and teaches students about African kingdoms that predated the arrival of slaves in the New World.

“We want to look at where everything started,” he said. “We don’t just want to start at slavery. We want them to understand that there was rich Black culture.”

Davis ensures his classes study a range of African American historical figures, including former slave Sojourner Truth, activist Mary Church Terrell and Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate.

“We don’t just look at Martin Luther King,” Davis said. “We don’t just look at Rosa Parks.”

For now, the Eisenhower High course is an elective. But a new state law authored by Assembly Member Jose Medina, D-Riverside, will make ethnic studies a graduation requirement statewide starting with the class of 2030. Medina is a former teacher at Riverside’s Poly High School.

Riverside Unified schools didn’t wait for the state to pass a law. In September 2020, the Riverside school board voted unanimously to make ethnic studies mandatory. The requirement will kick in with the Class of 2028, Meza said.

Current courses that meet that requirement include Ethnic Diversity in America, African American Studies and Chicano Studies, Meza wrote, and the district is considering adding others.

There has been pushback from parents in Riverside and elsewhere who contend that California is making high school students take classes in critical race theory.

The term has been a flashpoint in discussions about race in recent months. Critical race theory is a graduate-level study that examines how the U.S. legal system is shaped by race relations. The theory is largely taught in law schools. Meza wrote that the theory is not being taught in Riverside schools. Officials and teachers at other public school districts in Riverside and San Bernardino counties said the same.

“Critical race theory is a university topic, but it’s not part of our curriculum,” said Martinrex Kedziora, Moreno Valley Unified School District’s superintendent.

Rucker, the Murrieta teacher, said some people have objected to teaching about Black history in general because it partly involves discussing negative experiences such as slavery and they say it shames White students.

Rucker disagrees.

“They don’t internalize it and think, ‘They must be talking about me,’” she said.

Rucker said the opposite is true: students who learn about historical efforts to oppress a particular group are motivated to not let something similar happen again.

“I think it does something for bonding people together — when you learn about other people’s stories and lives,” she said.