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Photo: Carlos Moreno / KCUR.
Schools in Kansas City are out to remember a past often forgotten around the U.S. Photo: Carlos Moreno / KCUR.

Kansas City schools open to diversity, but don't forget the past

We are not in "that" Kansas anymore, Toto.

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It was September 1950 when Linda Brown, an African-American third grader, went with her father to enroll in a school near their home — Linda had to cross the railroad tracks and take a bus to attend another segregated school. It was a dangerous and long ride for the young girl.

The school, Sumner Elementary School, denied her enrollment because Brown was Black. Linda and her family decided to take the case to court and four years later there was a landmark Supreme Court ruling that ended racial segregation in schools across the country. 

The case, Brown v. Board of Education, was a landmark decision that is still discussed today.

But it is no accident that Linda Brown was born in Topeka, Kansas. 

Nor that 50 years ago, in another city in the same state, Wichita, students took the lead in the fight against school ghettos, chartering buses and suing the school district in 1966 for manipulating school boundaries to keep white children out of majority-black schools. 

Once part of the so-called "sundown towns" where people of color were cannon fodder after dark, Kansas had to fight hard against racism ingrained in the state as asphalt is in the road. 

But there are new winds of change in the air, and thanks to these struggles of the past, the present is more diverse in the classroom — even if new efforts are needed to bring this past into textbooks.

Oz in Kansas City

While the new cabinet of President Joe Biden has already begun to write the nation's future, in Kansas City, new school initiatives are beginning a real memory exercise to broaden the curriculum and include Black and Latino history. 

This was explained by journalist Elle Moxley for KCUR in a report on how many teachers were raising the voices of non-white Americans in the classroom. 

Among them is Latina teacher Jackie Madrigal, who works at Shawnee Mission North High School and whose classrooms breathe diversity in their room décor, with references to pop culture and Latino literature.

Madrigal, a third-generation Mexican immigrant, grew up hearing stories from her family about how Mexicans were always on the "outskirts of society."

"If you wanted to break through, you had to make a lot of concessions. You had to give up your own culture and your own language," she explained.

The fierce policy of cultural assimilation meant that Madrigal's parents did not teach their children Spanish and she had to learn only white history told by whites in school. 

"You had to give up your own culture and your own language," explained the teacher.

"So I went out of this formal education and looked for those stories," the Latina teacher said. "It was in the library... where I was able to discover my own history, my background, my stories."

Now, Madrigal is one of the teachers who helps her students understand the contributions of indigenous peoples, and she even designed a course on U.S. Latino literature that is taught in English and has about 15 mostly-Latino students each semester. 

Students read Rudolfo Anaya, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Isabel Allende in English and get English language credits for it.

While the initiative is a good one and Shawnee Mission would like to expand it to other schools, they have not yet found the right teacher because only 1% of teachers in Kansas City identify as Latino, according to the Latinx Education Collaborative — one third of the city's schools have no educators of color. 

With excellent intentions but few educational "ambassadors" to continue to give voice to diversity, the Kansas City Public School system will begin offering Black and Latino history classes to its students for the first time.

It remains to be seen whether this historic push for more inclusive and just education will spread like wildfire to the rest of the state.

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