The state of Washington flunked. And Whitman students are taking a step to help fix that.

A recent comprehensive report evaluating state requirements for teaching and learning about the Civil Rights Movement in the public schools gave the Pacific Northwest state an F.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the country’s foremost civil rights organizations, compiled the report.

Washington is not alone. The SPLC found that 34 additional states received an F because their standards require little or no mention of the movement.

We’re “losing history,” said Kate Shuster, the author of the report, which was released by the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program.

History of the civil rights movement is being lost, Shuster’s report noted, because across the country state educational standards virtually ignore the teaching of civil rights in the classroom.

In an attempt to remedy this historical ignorance, the SPLC is partnering with Whitman College and the Walla Walla Public Schools on a pilot program that will train Whitman students to teach lessons about civil rights in the local school district. The participating Whitman students will attend training sessions in December and head into the WWPS in January to teach age-appropriate lessons on the movement to second-, fifth- and 11th-graders.

The sessions will run for one period, roughly 50 minutes each. They will focus on one aspect of the Civil Rights Movement, a different topic chosen for each grade level. For example, the Whitman students trained to instruct 11th-graders will discuss MLK’s “The Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

The SPLC chose Whitman to launch the fledgling program in what’s being called “Whitman Teaches the Movement.”

“We see this as a unique service opportunity for Whitman students that will have a powerful impact on the community,” said Noah Leavitt, assistant dean for student engagement.

The innovative program is the first of its kind. While all the details aren’t set, what’s been ironed out is that Shuster is scheduled to run training sessions at Whitman from Dec. 6  to 7. Leavitt hopes to get up to 50 pairs of Whitman students to participate, as two students will run each lesson. Around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (dates still to determined), the Whitman volunteers will fan out to the local, public schools to teach their lessons. (The list of schools has yet to be finalized.)

“I am especially excited about the specifically designed grade level lessons and materials,” said Dr. Linda Boggs, assistant superintendent for WWPS. “Additionally, having college students as guest speakers provides an opportunity for our students to get a real life glimpse into ‘college,’ as many students, especially younger ones, may know college as a word but not have a clear picture of what it might look like.”

All of the lessons will be geared towards discussing why the Civil Rights Movement was an important part of U.S. history and revealing how it informs us about our world today.

“This program is a new way to revitalize civil rights through the grassroots community,” Leavitt added.

After the program takes place, the SPLC, Whitman and WWPS will evaluate its efficacy, and if successful, the SPLC will set up these types of partnerships across the country in order to increase awareness about civil rights.

This is a potentially nationally significant initiative. Whether or not this partnership will increase students’ fluency in the Civil Rights Movement is unknown.

“We are creating precedence,” Leavitt said. “This type of program has never been done before, which is why it’s so exciting.”

—Edward Weinman