Spotlight on Schools

Contra County Court Schools

Localizing History Instruction




Three years ago, a group of teachers from the Contra Costa juvenile court schools attended a series of workshops on integrating language development and literacy into history classrooms. Robert Bowers, the school’s assistant principal, had previously collaborated with UCBHSSP in the Brentwood Union School District and saw an opportunity to better support his new students.

 As the teachers from the court school returned to their classrooms with the UCBHSSP literacy strategies, they experienced increased success with their students. Building off that work, the school invited Phyllis Goldsmith, UCBHSSP’s longtime co-director, to support the history teachers in curriculum design. The goal was to engage students, 80% of whom are black and Latino in a county that is majority white, in academic social science lessons that reflected their history and heritage and did not ignore their trauma.

In addition to integrating literacy strategies into history instruction, Phyllis and the teachers identified key content units, which would not only align with the school’s ELA  and SEL curricula but also center local historical events and historical moments when young people made a difference in the world.

Last year, the teachers, supported by Phyllis, reoriented units on Im/migration, WWII, and Civil Rights. Adapting UCBHSSP’s Making History approach, Phyllis looked for opportunities to connect the content studied to the history of the student’s community. During one particular lesson that explored how communities have changed, students looked at Contra Costa County demographic data over time, noting the shifting population with regard to race. As the students engaged with the assignment, they expressed surprise at the data’s representation of the county’s population, because many county residents live in segregated enclaves. As the students expanded their analysis, they began looking for historical moments - from the building of BART to the loss of well paying jobs and housing that was less expensive than in other areas of the Bay - to explain these shifts in racial demographics.

The most important reminder for the instructors has been that when students are able to connect  their family and community narratives to history content, they have an increased level of engagement and desire to learn.  Additionally, the repeated practice with a number of the literacy strategies has given students access to rigorous content and enabled them to increase their writing production and success.