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Illinois elementary, high school students to learn about Asian American history under measure awaiting governor’s signature
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Illinois elementary, high school students to learn about Asian American history under measure awaiting governor’s signature

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Mary Manching felt a disconnect between her Asian American heritage and what she was learning at Northside College Prep.

“I never saw myself represented in the history curriculum,” said Manching, a graduating senior at the selective enrollment high school in the North Park neighborhood of Chicago. “I knew what it was like to not have a lot of people that looked like me, that I could relate to, that I could share my cultural experiences with.”

“It bolstered feelings of discouragement, estrangement,” she said.

That classroom gap could soon be a thing of the past after Illinois lawmakers recently approved a measure requiring elementary and high schools to teach a unit on Asian American and Pacific Islander history starting with the 2022-23 school year.

The Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History, or TEAACH, Act was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Ram Villivalam of Chicago and Democratic Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz of Glenview.

A coalition of advocacy groups pushed for the bill amid a public focus on a rise in attacks against Asian American people during the COVID-19 lockdown and the March shootings and killings of six women of Asian descent at Atlanta-area spas.

“We see this bill as a way to tackle the rising problem of anti-Asian racism and violence in a more long-term way,” said Grace Pai, a spokeswoman for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, where Manching is a student leader.

“It’s not enough to just tackle the problem of violence after it occurs, we have to identify some root causes, and I think education is one way to help reduce discrimination, to encourage young people and students to have more empathy and more compassion for people who have different identities from themselves,” Pai said.

The bill requires schools to teach about Asian American history at the U.S., state and regional level. The proposed curriculum covers topics from Chinese workers on the Transcontinental Railroad and South Asian silk traders to contemporary issues like Islamophobia and the DREAM Act, according to materials provided by the advocacy group.

Lawmakers identified resources for educators, including the Public Broadcasting Service’s “Asian Americans,” a five-hour film series, and 30 supplemental lesson plans on Asian Americans’ ongoing role in shaping the nation’s story.

If Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the bill into law, school boards would get to determine the amount of instructional time needed for the unit. The bill does not impose any new penalties or fines if school fail to add the lessons, Gong-Gershowitz’s office said.

The Illinois State Board of Education was neutral on the measure, which the Illinois House approved 108-10. Most of the “no” votes were cast by Downstate Republicans.

Republican Rep. Avery Bourne of Morrisonville spoke out against the bill in April, arguing curriculum decisions should be left to local school boards, according to a news report. Bourne’s office did not respond to a Tribune request for comment.

Pai said the state should “teach the real and honest history of the United States.”

“We’ve seen what happens when local districts are allowed to decide what curriculum they teach, and that is that they don’t teach an inclusive history,” Pai said. “Many communities’ stories are left out, and the full picture of American history, U.S. history, is not told, and that’s unacceptable.”

In Illinois, the state education board requires students to study women’s history, Black history, LGBTQ history, the forced deportation of Mexican Americans during the Great Depression, and the disability rights movement. It does not specify any mandated units on Asian American and Pacific Islander history.

In comparison, Indiana’s U.S. history standards includes specific mention of lessons on Chinese settlers in the westward expansion and the experiences of Asian Americans during World War II. In Iowa, the state’s core high school education standards includes units on the Chinese Exclusion Act — a federal law signed in 1882 prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers — and Executive Order 9066, which authorized the incarceration of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II.

Across the country in Georgia, where the shootings took place last spring, fifth grade state social studies standards prescribe only that students learn about “Japanese aggression in Asia,” major wars in the Pacific, and the U.S.’ atomic bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

But educators like Noble Network of Charter Schools teacher Laura Houcque Prabhakar say this limited history tells an incomplete and inaccurate story, one that’s has been exacerbated by the pandemic and an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes.

An April survey by the nonprofit Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change found that nearly 80% of Asian Americans said they were discriminated against in the U.S., and nearly 40% of white Americans said they were not aware of increased hate crimes against Asian Americans.

“As an educator … it is our responsibility to continually be seeking out information and knowledge about the different histories and stories that make up our country, just to make sure all our students feel seen and heard,” said Houcque Prabhakar, who also is a community leader with the Cambodian Association of Illinois.

A quarter of white Americans said anti-Asian American racism isn’t a problem that needs addressed. And nearly 50% of non-Asian Americans believe Asian Americans are fairly represented or overrepresented in senior leadership positions.

Patricia Nguyen, a professor of Asian American studies at Northwestern University, said these assumptions are perpetuated by the “model minority myth” — the idea that Asian Americans are “closer to whiteness” than other ethnic groups — a media-driven narrative during the civil rights movement as a way to “divide Black and Asian Americans.”

“(Education) could shape the way we see the world and interact with each other and make us better toward each other,” Nguyen said. “This … offers the opportunity for students to learn about American History … to understand the history of immigration, the history of how the United States has operated internationally and domestically.”

The bill was sent to the governor’s desk on Wednesday and he’s expected to act on it later this summer.

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