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Balsz School District Superintendent Says '1619 Project' Will Teach Students Where They Came From, Where They're Going

The Balsz Elementary School District in Phoenix will be the first in Arizona to use the New York Times' "1619 Project" — which commemorates the 400th anniversary of slavery in the U.S. and its role in shaping the country — in its classrooms. 

“As a former social studies teacher, it’s so endearing to me that we are now at a stage in America where we want to hold these conversations," said Superintendent Arlene Kennedy.

The district is working with Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy to train its teachers on this project. This effort is meant to bring unacknowledged individuals and under examined historical events into the spotlight, but it won’t replace the history already being taught in schools, said Lois Brown, the center's director.  

“It gives us an opportunity to compliment, supplement, expand and enrich what we have and perhaps also compels us to recognize where the gaps have been," Brown said. 

More than half of the district's students are Hispanic or Latino and African America, but Brown said all students, regardless of their background, have something to gain from this material and it might mean something different to each of them.

"It matters when students begin to see others who look like them achieving great things and learning those stories as part of an essential curriculum," Brown said. 

President Donald Trump has blasted the project and schools that have committed to bringing it to their classrooms. Republican State Reps. Mark Finchem and John Fillmore recently criticized the Balsz district for its efforts. 

"Considering the '1619 Project' was disputed by scholars and represents a pessimistic, divisive world view, we were surprised that these materials would end up in Arizona classrooms, especially at the youngest grade levels," the state representatives said in the letter to the district.

Superintendent Kennedy pushes back. 

"We just say to everyone if you care about the children of the Balsz School District and you care about their needs, and not about your own personal agenda, you will see that this information is important for them to move forward and learn about where they came from so that they can know where they are going to," she said. 

Balsz teachers have already started their introduction into the material and will be doing more training over the next five months.

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Rocio Hernandez was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2020 to 2022.