For the past several years, second- and third-graders at Morgan Woods Elementary School have spent several months of the school year learning African folklore, music and art.
At Twin Lakes Elementary School this year, pupils will learn about cultures in Japan, Mexico and the nations of Africa. And at Jefferson High School, students get a hefty helping of African-American culture in social studies class.
Hillsborough County school officials refer to these classes as "bright spots" _ classrooms, or even entire schools, where students learn about the contributions of cultures not traditionally taught in the schools. These isolated programs sprouted because some teachers felt the existing curriculum didn't teach children enough about cultures different from their own.
Now, the Hillsborough school district is preparing to develop a districtwide multicultural education curriculum. The goal is to have every school and every classroom teach an appreciation and respect for other cultures.
A task force is being formed this month to develop the curriculum. A plan is supposed to be ready by April.
"We're not trying to make it a separate curriculum; it is the curriculum," said Nancy Marsh, supervisor of secondary science, who will be involved in the development of the courses. "The point is to truly transform the curriculum."
In attempting to transform its curriculum, Hillsborough County is joining U.S. school systems that are starting to question the traditional way of teaching children about history, literature and science.
In Florida, where 38 percent of the nearly 2-million public school students are black, Hispanic, Asian or American Indian, many educators say the state's classrooms should be teaching more about those cultures' contributions to society.
Proponents say they believe that a multicultural curriculum can improve academic performance and self-esteem for minority students, who will be learning about their own culture. Opponents say that such a curriculum will take time away from more basic studies, and that in some cases classics by non-minority writers might be replaced by works by minority authors.
In Hillsborough County, roughly 64 percent of the students are white, 21 percent are black, 13 percent are Hispanic, and about 2 percent are Asian.
A districtwide multicultural curriculum in Hillsborough is something several teachers and administrators have wanted for some time. Now, the development of the curriculum is part of the district's desegregation plan. When the curriculum plan is ready, it will be reviewed by the federal court that oversees desegregation.
Rudolph Harris, a veteran Jefferson High School social studies teacher, will be keeping a close and critical eye on the task force's work.
Harris has been pushing for more than seven years to get a multicultural curriculum in Hillsborough's schools, and several years ago he took his proposal directly to the School Board. Although he teaches about African-American contributions to history in his classroom, he has been unsuccessful in bringing about changes districtwide.
"This is a chance to do something top-notch, something genuine," Harris said. "It's a chance to do something to improve the curriculum.
"But if they're just doing it to satisfy the court order, that's not right."
Marsh said, "We are developing the program to comply with the federal order, but also because it's the right thing to do." She said the new curriculum will include all academic disciplines _ math and science, as well as literature and art.
The program still must be developed, but a resolution approved by the Hillsborough County School Board outlines some of the goals of the curriculum: "multicultural education fosters appreciation, respect, understanding and acceptance of individuals from varied socio-economic, language and cultural backgrounds _ African American, Hispanic American, Asian American, Native American and European American."
Multicultural curricula have touched off fiery controversies in some school districts.
For instance, this month in New York, educators are debating whether to include classes aimed at teaching young children respect for gay families. The Hillsborough County program is not expected to include such material.