Date: Sun, 10 Jan 1999 15:58:58 -0800
NAACP criticizes Mumia teach-in. School officials hope to limit controversy
By Jonathan Schorr, Oakland Tribune, Friday 8 January 1999
OAKLAND -- With the local NAACP blasting a planned "teach-in" surrounding death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, Oakland school officials are scrambling to head off a major controversy like that over Ebonics.
Last week, school officials announced that middle school, high school and adult school students will spend time Jan. 14 learning about the former Oakland Black Panther, who was convicted of the 1982 murder of a Philadelphia police officer. An execution date is due to be set within two months.
The idea for the teach-in came from members of the Oakland teachers' union, some of whom strongly oppose the execution.
But the notion of a teach-in -- raising images of a day of political protest instead of school -- drew criticism from the new school board president and, more recently, from the chief of the Oakland NAACP.
Angered by suggestions that the classes were relevant to Oakland's minority students because many of them will end up incarcerated, NAACP head Shannon Reeves called for teaching science, mathematics and grammar instead.
He also questioned why Abu-Jamal's execution merited such attention, in contrast to the Rodney King trial or the freeing of South Africa's Nelson Mandela. His statements received wide media attention.
"The subject matter is appropriate for a social studies course," Reeves said. "It is not appropriate to suspend the curriculum in core classes."
At a school board meeting Wednesday and in interviews Thursday, school officials moved to make clear the event would not resemble the teach-in many might picture. While the event will vary from one school to another, participation is voluntary for teachers, and families will receive letters and can opt out, district spokeswoman Sue Piper said. Moreover, Oakland Education Association President Sheila Quintana told the school board Wednesday that core classes such as math will not be compromised.
School board president Noel Gallo, who criticized the teach-in, said the event has been recast as educational rather than political, and limited to civics and social studies classes. He said the district must avoid another grand controversy like Ebonics. "For sure we do not want anther ... national embarrassment," he said.
Superintendent Carole Quan stressed that the schools will let students come to their own conclusions about the case.
"We are using current events, bringing relevance to our classroom to impact the lives of our young people," she said. "This is a teachable moment ... but let me be very clear, the district does not take any side."
Board member Dan Siegel has reviewed the curriculum and spoke well of it, saying it does teach academic skills.
"When you think about what is it we're trying to teach our young people, some of the most important things are reading, writing and critical thinking," he said. "In a sense, it really doesn't matter what the subject matter is, as long as it's one that catches the interest of the students."
BRC-ALL: Black Radical Congress - International Discussion/Debate