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Virginia high schools to offer new African American history elective this fall

A new high school elective course in Virginia claims to dive deeper into African Americans' contribution to the story of America than ever before.

SUFFOLK, Va. — "I just learned last year who Shirley Chisolm was. And Ida B. Wells."

Kamryn Whitley just graduated from Lakeland High School in Suffolk. 

During her senior year, she took a new elective class on African American history that claims to expand cultural awareness in Virginia high schools. 

"It allowed me to go back and look [at] exactly where I came from, who my ancestors were, who my family was," said Whitley.

Jamal Jackson, now a senior at King's Fork High School in Suffolk, said the class was eye-opening.

"It's a lot that is in the dark that we don't know about," said Jackson. "And this course, it sheds a light into a whole lot of it."

Suffolk teachers Carlotta Boone and Lawren Lee virtually introduced the course in their high schools, and they said it challenged students' understanding of the Black experience in America.

"As you go through the history of the United States of America, African Americans are a vital part of the success of this country," said Lee, a teacher at Lakeland High School.

"The kids have studied basically from the beginnings -- which is the human origins, all the way up to today," said Boone, a teacher at King's Fork High School.

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Suffolk was one of a handful of local school districts, including Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Newport News, to pilot the course last year. 

It was developed in part by the African American History Education Commission, which was established by Governor Ralph Northam in 2019 to help equip educators to effectively teach Black history and to review Virginia's history standards.

"The standards of learning were one of our key areas that we talked about... the omissions, as well as the interpretations that were very highly political," said Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, who served as co-chair of the commission. 

Newby-Alexander is a history professor and dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Norfolk State University.

"We spent countless hours in intense meetings, looking at every single standard and making recommendations," Newby-Alexander said. 

You can review those recommendations here.

But she said updating Virginia's curriculum didn't go far enough.

"We believe that the history of African Americans was unique enough that we needed to have a separate course," the dean explained. "It's important to understand that history and legacy so that you see the ark. You can see where we've come from to really take a better assessment of where we are today."

Whitley and Jackson told 13News Now they benefited from taking the class.

"We got to talk about real issues, social issues that were happening around us," said Whitley, who decided to attend an HBCU after taking the course

"You learn how to look at things from a different perspective," said Jackson.

Lee and Boone agreed the course is a major step forward in teaching Virginia students that Black history is essential to the American story.

"I'm excited in the turn that Virginia is taking as far as adding African American history to our curriculum," said Lee.

"Bringing the African American perspective into the American history has definitely been a good thing," said Boone.

The course is available to every school district in Virginia starting this fall, but it's up to each district to decide whether it will be offered as a high school elective class.