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Hillsborough’s top seniors of 2022 urge honest lessons on race in U.S. history

Read the four winning entries in the 2022 R.F. “Red” Pittman Tribune Scholars essay contest.
The 2022 winners of the R.F. “Red” Pittman Tribune essay contest, left to right: Andrea Rodriguez, Newsome High School; Rowan O'Flanagan, Plant High School; Suhani M. Shah, Carrollwood Day School; and Ryan R. Kelly, Tampa Preparatory School.
The 2022 winners of the R.F. “Red” Pittman Tribune essay contest, left to right: Andrea Rodriguez, Newsome High School; Rowan O'Flanagan, Plant High School; Suhani M. Shah, Carrollwood Day School; and Ryan R. Kelly, Tampa Preparatory School. [ Composite ]
Published May 19|Updated May 22

Hillsborough’s top seniors weighed in on one of the most controversial issues raging through politics today: How should we teach about race in U.S. history?

Those at the top 3 percent of their class were asked to write a 250-word essay on the following:

Florida lawmakers are debating how schools teach the role of race in U.S. history. From your experience, is it done right? Are lessons left out? Does it make students uncomfortable? How should race and history be taught?

A total of 111 students responded as part of the annual R.F. “Red” Pittman Tribune Scholars program, named for a publisher of the former Tampa Tribune newspaper and now sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times.

The judges this year were Stephen Lambert, English professor and quality enhancement plan director at Hillsborough Community College; Emily Griffiths Jones, assistant professor of English at the University of South Florida; and Yuly Restrepo, assistant professor of English at the University of Tampa.

“It was hard to pick just four,” said Lambert. “So many of them were thoughtful.”

Each winner received a scholarship for $1,427.41. They are Ryan R. Kelly, Tampa Preparatory School; Rowan O’Flanagan, Plant High School; Andrea Rodriguez, Newsome High School; and Suhani M. Shah, Carrollwood Day School.

Ryan R. Kelly of Tampa Preparatory School is one of four winners in the 2022 R.F. "Red" Pittman Tribune Scholars program.
Ryan R. Kelly of Tampa Preparatory School is one of four winners in the 2022 R.F. "Red" Pittman Tribune Scholars program. [ Ryan R. Kelly ]

Ryan R. Kelly, Tampa Preparatory School

Ryan plans to attend McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University.

Growing up in a private school, I’ve only heard the horror stories of the public school history curriculum, one dictated by legislators who are actively trying to ban discussions of the moral atrocities of racial discrimination as to not cause discomfort.

But private school education isn’t all that different. Each year since elementary school, I’ve learned the same fundamental ideas about the American slave trade, its role in U.S. History leading up to the Civil War, and the broader ideas of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. That, however, is the extent of my formal education on race.

I’ve had to rely on other aspects of my life to teach me about the horrors of Bloody Sunday, the Tuskegee Study and the Black Wall Street Massacre. Still, race isn’t only an issue of Black or white. Growing up in Florida, and Tampa specifically, I know there is a rich history of local Native American cultures that have been completely ignored. Other than a single field trip in sixth grade, I haven’t learned anything about them.

Until this essay, I hadn’t thought about how poorly racial issues are taught. Raising the next generation of leaders requires a wholehearted discussion of the dangers of the past. I don’t know what has to change, but here’s a start: if lawmakers are really so concerned with students learning an unbiased history, they should start teaching the FULL history, not the one that they’re comfortable with. Because let’s face it: race IS uncomfortable.

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Rowan O’Flanagan of Plant High School is one of four winners in the 2022 R.F. "Red" Pittman Tribune Scholars program.
Rowan O’Flanagan of Plant High School is one of four winners in the 2022 R.F. "Red" Pittman Tribune Scholars program. [ Rowan O’Flanagan ]

Rowan O’Flanagan, Plant High School

Rowan plans to attend Johns Hopkins University and study biophysics.

The recent debate surrounding “critical race theory,” and the teaching of U.S. history in schools has been richly ironic compared to my own experience.

Much of the rhetoric from conservative leaders like Gov. Ron DeSantis has centered around the idea that teachers should not be allowed to make students — particularly white ones — feel uncomfortable on the basis of their race. As a white student myself, I found this talking point to be surprising.

At no point in my ten-plus years of Floridian public school education has a history lesson made me feel even mildly uncomfortable about my race — and that’s where the actual problem lies. The history of race relations in the U.S., beginning with the enslavement of Black people and genocide of Native Americans, is inherently uncomfortable to discuss.

Understanding it requires that students acknowledge not just the pain, brutality and wrongdoing of the past, but the effect it has on our present and future. The discomfort a student feels when learning these lessons isn’t one of shame or self-loathing, but rather the discomfort that occurs when something is left unfinished, and further action is needed to right a wrong.

Shielding students from the harsh truths of the past doesn’t protect them, it only allows white students to remain oblivious while their Black and brown peers continue to deal with the consequences of an untold history.

Andrea Rodriguez of Newsome High School was one of four winners in the 2022 R.F. "Red" Pittman Tribune Scholars program.
Andrea Rodriguez of Newsome High School was one of four winners in the 2022 R.F. "Red" Pittman Tribune Scholars program. [ Andrea Rodriguez ]

Andrea Rodriguez, Newsome High School

Andrea will be studying operations research and information engineering at the College of Engineering at Cornell University.

Apart from educating students on culture and the foundations upon which society is built, history is taught so that, as students mature and learn about the world around them, they may be better equipped to understand and manage the pressing issues of today.

History is more than a story of our past; it is the analysis of patterns throughout time that continue to this day. With such significance that our history classes hold, as the foundation for our understanding of human interaction, it is questionable why the role of race in history is not given its deserved time and attention to detail as are presidents, battles or even crops.

Race in U.S. history has been the source of wars, reform movements and massive cultural shifts. However, students are taught vaguely about the role of race in the U.S. and are taught nothing about how the prominence of racism in our country has had residual effects on racial minorities to this day. If history is to teach us how to correct the mistakes we have made in the past, it is imperative to understand racism in all its forms throughout history.

Beyond historical figures and court cases, we must learn the causes and effects of racial conflicts and how race’s role remains impactful to the decisions our country makes.

Students must recognize the significance of race in our history so that they may better confront racial issues today. Through our education, we can prevent history from repeating itself.

Suhani M. Shah of Carrollwood Day School is one of four graduating seniors in Hillsborough County to win the 2022 R.F. "Red" Pittman Tribune Scholars program.
Suhani M. Shah of Carrollwood Day School is one of four graduating seniors in Hillsborough County to win the 2022 R.F. "Red" Pittman Tribune Scholars program. [ Suhani M. Shah ]

Suhani M. Shah, Carrollwood Day School

Suhani plans to attend UCLA as a pre-public affairs major.

What do the years 1863, 1882 and 1942 all have in common?

Here’s a clue, they all contain milestones of Asian-Americans in the United States. In fact, the only “milestones” of Asian-Americans primarily mentioned in U.S. History courses include the start of Chinese maltreatment in construction of the transcontinental railroad, the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the start of Japanese torture in WWII internment camps. These Asian-American “milestones” mark spectacular events regarding racist policy and low-degree genocide.

Asians, and other non-white races, endure extreme systemic racism within national U.S. History curricula. These three mandated Asian references barely scratch the surface of what Asian-American history truly is. I’ve even asked my APUSH teacher how Asian-Americans endured the Great Depression, only to hear a wordless response.

Integrating missing cultures and stories into American classrooms is not uncomfortable, but rather it’s how we develop as a society. As we strive to further our understanding of different communities and simultaneously distance ourselves from the Eurocentrism seen in American history, it seems necessary that lessons include notable figures of all races.

Furthermore, I believe it’s actually more uncomfortable to be a person-of-color student that has no basic understanding of what life was like for her immigrant grandparents in the 1970′s. I am uncomfortable that I lack awareness of my people’s role in my country’s past. It pains me that even as a registered citizen, my APUSH class makes me feel as if I’m not truly American.

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