OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — In February 2021, Oak Ridge City Schools added a new topic to its middle and high school history curriculum: the Oak Ridge 85, the first Black students to integrate public schools in the southeast in 1955.
Their trailblazing efforts were unknown for more than six decades as Oak Ridge’s involvement in the Manhattan Project during World War II kept the city, and those living in it, shrouded in secrecy.
Now, as students in the Secret City learn about this part of their history, the community is pushing to make sure the 85’s story is known in classrooms statewide.
"It’s just that the students are realizing what happened here, and that's very important because we don't ever want to forget what happened here," said John Spratling, a teacher and coach in Oak Ridge Schools who helped bring the 85 to the district's curriculum.
The State Board of Education started reviewing its current social studies standards over the summer with a public survey. It got back 114,500 comments.
“We on the state board, we have the responsibility to establish the standards, and the standards are what a student should know,” said Bob Eby, vice-chair of the Tennessee State Board of Education. “The districts then develop the curricula to establish those standards. They use state-approved textbooks and other things."
Some of those responses came from Oak Ridge with Spratling and other community members sending around email chains asking for the Oak Ridge 85 to be added.
"There's no way you can have a civil rights conversation and just leave Oak Ridge totally out of the conversation. So we belong in that standard, and that's what we're pushing for," Spratling said.
Oak Ridge is included in the Tennessee history standards for its contributions to World War II. The Clinton 12, who integrated a year later, are part of the current Civil Rights Movement sections of the standards across all grade levels. The 85 are absent.
"That's not in our state standards, but Oak Ridge determined the importance of that and decided they wanted to develop that into their curriculum and so they included that in their curriculum. It's not required by the state,” Eby said.
Eby, who represents the Third Congressional District on the State Board of Education, said all Tennesseans are invited to give their input starting around February or March 2023.
"Tennessee schools are part of the Tennessee community and so Tennesseans own the school system, basically, and, you know, here's an opportunity to provide input,” he said. “We want a very transparent process. We want one that's thorough, that's clear so that people know what our students are being taught.”
To bring the history of the Oak Ridge 85 to classrooms across Tennessee, the State Board of Education must approve the standards first.
"We all deserve our place in history. So we're not really competing as people say, but we just want the truth of history to be told," Spratling said.
Eby said he expects the new standards to pass by February 2024 and will be officially taught in schools by the 2026-2027 school year.
More information about the academic standards review timeline is available on the State Board of Education's website.