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Legal Sikhs In Texas Schools Curriculum


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Sikhs in Texas Schools Curriculum

Sikhs in Texas Schools Curriculum :: SikhNN :: The Next Generation of News and Views

How did Texas Sikhs convince a very religiously right education board in a very politically conservative state to include information about Sikhs in its very controversial public-schools curriculum?

“It was a matter of organization and savvy lobbying,” said Dan Quinn, communications director of the Texas Freedom Network. He advised the Sikh Coalition on how to approach board members. The Texas State Board of Education on May 21 unanimously passed, 15 to 0, an amendment to its curriculum to include information about Sikh culture and religion in social studies and history syllabuses.

“The Sikh community did a very god job. It was incredible,” said Patricia Hardy, a board member. “They went about this in the most professional way.” Beginning in the 2011-2012 school year, sixth graders will learn about Sikhs and Sikhi in contemporary world cultures and geography classes.

Vaisakhi will be presented when they learn about Christmas, Yom Kippur, Ramadan and Diwali. High school students taking world history will learn about the origins of Sikhism and its basic beliefs, and locations of large Sikh populations in world geography classes.

Lower grades typically do not study these subjects, but if teachers have a Sikh child in their classes, they are free to include the material in their instructions, Hardy said.

The state-mandated public school curriculum is a framework that guides teachers on what they must teach in kindergarten to 12th grades. It is an education policy that is revised once every decade.

“By adding one word, (Sikh), it would put that in the text and get teachers to teach it, and be beneficial to all the Sikhs in Texas,” she said. “We just assured those children would have recognition in sixth and ninth grades.”

Board members, educators, advocacy groups and the Texas sangat worked hand-in-hand to revise the standard. But all of them gave kudos to one person for orchestrating its success: Manbeena Kaur, the Sikh Coalition’s education director.

“Manbeena was an example that even if you start with these yayhoos (country folks), and you are positive and consistent with your message, they are willing to go along with your ideas and your ideals,” said Paul Henley, a teaching and learning specialist with the Texas State Teacher’s Association in Austin.

“Most groups bang their fists on the podium,” he added. But the Sikhs did a good job organizing and building power. It was nice watching it happen.”

The coalition is a national advocacy group that was founded in 2001 in New York. It provides legal representation to Sikhs experiencing bullying, hate crimes and employment inequality issues, and has an education outreach program.

“Education is the best proactive thing we can do to eliminate bias incidents so they don’t happen in first place,” Manbeena Kaur said.

The effort to amend a state-wide curriculum began last year with New Jersey. The coalition had built relationships with the education sector over the last six years by training educators and public school students, and building an alliance between them and the Sikh community. When the state began revising its curriculum last year, it was relatively easy for the coalition to have Sikhi added to it, Manbeena said.

According to a coalition news release, all middle-school social-studies students will have to "compare and contrast the tenets of various world religions (e.g., Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and Toaism), their patterns of expansion and response to the current challenges of globalization." New Jersey passed the new standards in September. Local school districts will use the standards as a guide to purchase the textbooks used in their schools.

“This is an important first step towards ensuring that Sikh parents and students do not solely carry the burden of educating students on Sikhs and Sikh practices,” according to the news release.

Emboldened by the New Jersey experience, the coalition decided to take on Texas. Texas is a very large decision maker with respect to textbook content, and is the second largest publisher of public school textbooks, Manbeena Kaur said. Many other states typically adopt Texas standards and purchase the same textbooks.

“We felt Texas was a good state to target, it would have a domino affect for other states,” she added. But the coalition did not have any relationship there with the education board.

Manbeena Kaur flew down to Texas and met with the sangat in the state’s four large cities: Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. She presented the project and mobilized volunteers in every city. She began with letter writing and petition signing campaigns, and called on volunteers that had worked with the coalition on other campaigns.

Juspreet Kaur, a student and mother from San Antonio, was approached to volunteer because she had earlier helped with the Army campaign in Texas. She headed the petition signing campaign and organized volunteers to collect signatures at gurdwaras in each city.

She then went to her daughter’s elementary school and found other Americans to sign the petition. She also asked many students to write letters to the board, indicating their school’s district. The letters went to the principal who sent them to the superintendant who sent them to the board.

“We worked the angle from the public and constituents,” she said. About 1,000 people signed the petition.

Manbeena headed the letter-writing campaign. Along with the letters Juspreet collected, about 400 total were sent to the board. She chose a few of the writers to testify at the board meetings in November, January, March and May.

“There was always a Sikh representative at the meetings,” Henley said. “They were positive and consistent.”

But just telling the board that Sikhs wanted representation in the curriculum was not going to be enough. They had to show how and where they would fit into the curriculum.

The board had mapped a year-long timeline for the revision process and posted the curriculum standards last fall for public comment.

Manbeena, also a former fifth grade teacher in Texas, and Jasmine Kaur, education director at the Sikh Research Institute in San Antonio, poured through hundreds of pages of the document and identified four relevant areas where Sikhism was left out.

This information was included in a 40-page binder with some background information about Sikhs, the back lash from the 9/11 attacks, contributions Sikhs have made to America and a few choice letters. The binders were personally presented to board members.

The public is allowed to directly appeal to the board. But before they could talk to the board members, they had to do their homework.

Manbeena created a database profiling each of the members. It included their districts, backgrounds and political views. She determined which members were sympathetic, which ones were apathetic and which ones were sitting on the fence. They found Sikhs who lived in each of their constituencies, and had them email their concerns and their support to amend the curriculum.

“That made them sit up and listen,” Manbeena said.


It's important for kids to ask who are these people who where turbans. The fifth largest religion is not included in curriculum but sixth is included."
Shammi Kaur Gill, a librarian with the Houston Public Library System, who testifed to the board of education.

She and other volunteers approached the members with a combination of knowledge and respect.

Manbeena remembered that one of the board members she talked to had no idea about Sikhs. Afterwards, he said: “You guys care about the same thing we do – to tell the truth, and that everyone should be respected.”

Manbeena and others testified at the meetings. She sought out Sikhs in different occupations with different perspectives to avoid repeating testimonies. She chose a librarian, a student, a businessman and a parent.

For Hardy, the most memorable testimony came from Harsimran Singh, 15, a sophomore at Round Rock High School, in Austin. The “young man” testified how he always had to explain himself in school, she said.

Harsimran Singh told them what happened to him last year in school when he was a freshman. “Teachers would tell me to take off my patka, calling it a hat or do-rag,” he said. He would explain that it was a part of Sikhi, but that didn’t always work. One teacher did not believe him and took him to the principal’s office. He was belligerent: “I thought only girls wore head coverings.”

“Sir that is Islam,” Harsimran Singh replied.

This year, and every new school year, teachers ask what he is wearing on his head. “I explain,” he said. The board took notice of his testimony.

“A couple of the board members, like Rick Agosto, were empathetic,” he said. “Many were writing notes, then they put their pens down and listened. They were surprised.”

The coalition also called on Manpreet Singh, a Houston attorney and previous volunteer, to testify. She had made independent presentations about Sikhs to the Houston police department and schools, although some schools turned her down.

The two went to Austin in November to testify. There they mingled with board members during breaks. Some members were openly skeptical.

Manpreet came across Cynthia Dunbar, one of the more conservative members of the board, and struck up a conversation. Her reaction was: “If we let you in, how many religions do we let in? It’s a slippery slope.”

“Initially, there was some push back,” Henley said. Sikhs maintained that schools were teaching the first, second, third, fourth and sixth top religions.

Then Terri Leo asked, “Can you tell me why these standards would include Judaism and not Sikhism?”

During a break, Manpreet came across Lawrence Allen, an Islamic member of the board. He advised her on what she needed to say to the board, which shaped her testimony.

The amendment “will change my son’s life,” Manpreet told the board. The board accepted three of the four items they proposed. Now they had to come up with a new strategy to get the final items.

There was a lot of nail biting going on the day of the vote. Manbeena was there until midnight, until they finally announced their decision. And it was unanimous.

“It’s so frustrating how much work it took to get our name in there,”

Manpreet said. But now she can call teachers and ask to do presentations, and tell them it is mandatory. They can’t refuse.

“We conquered this from a grass roots movement.”

“We approved the framework, now it has to be sent to school districts,” said Hardy, also a curriculum and instruction specialist who taught social studies for 30 years, and a teacher consultant with National Geographic. Meanwhile, teachers will go online to get information for classroom instruction.

“We will have the standards done, have professional development to learn about the new standards, have money set to train teachers in the new (intranet) system in Texas where we access vetted information from source like the Smithsonian,” she said.

Hardy will coordinate the writing of the content for the textbooks, which expected to publish in 2014.

It is true that what happens in Texas affects the other states, she added. Many states begin their curriculum by looking at the Texas curriculum.

Texas has strong geography and social studies requirements. Students must take four years of social studies to graduate from high school.

Texas also is the largest purchaser of textbooks. It used to be California, but California has no money, Hardy said. “We do the research and development for the textbooks,” she added. So it is cheaper for other states to just follow Texas.

“Sikhism may be tested,” Henley added. Kids will have to know about Sikhism during tests, in high stakes tests that students have to pass to graduate. “This will improve the standing of Sikh students in public school,” he said. “Other kids have to learn about your culture.”

Note: Story by Anju Kaur
Sikh News Network staff journalist
© Copyrigt 2001-2010 Sikh News Network, LLC.



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