Alana Laforest, a rising junior at Boston Latin Academy, has taken U.S. history classes and was among the first students in the city to take an Advanced Placement African American studies class this year.

But when it came to learning about a notorious chapter of Boston history — how forced busing led to years of violence and decades of resentment — most of her education didn’t come from a teacher in a classroom. Maybe it should have, the 16-year-old Haitian American said.

“Based off of the fact that we have a lot of great educational opportunities within the city, I think students deserve to know about the barriers that were put in place to prevent them, just so that they can not only appreciate their education more, but take advantage of it and continue to learn and grow to make the city more inclusive,” Laforest said.

This week marks 50 years since U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. issued a decision ordering Boston Public Schools to end the practice of unconstitutional segregation of its students. But that seminal era, one that helped to give Boston a reputation as one of the most racist cities in America, is one that students may have to learn about from friends or family or on social media.

That’s because state standards recommend but don’t require schools to teach the history of busing. A 217-page framework recommending what is taught in social studies classes mentions busing just twice. There are no formal requirements to teach about busing, no district mandates, no boxes to check, or tests to verify what students learn on the topic.

Right now, it’s up to individual social studies teachers to prioritize it in their lesson plans.

Some do.

Fenway High humanities teacher Marcus Walker said he taught students about desegregation as a history teacher at South Boston High.

Walker, who is Black, said he did so because of the school’s historical significance as an epicenter of violence during the ’70s, when Black students from Roxbury were bused to the school and amid violent and unwelcoming throngs living in the predominantly Irish neighborhood surrounding the school.

“So, I was at the very same school that was kinda ground zero for all of busing back in 1974, in particular,” Walker said. “I mean, I taught it because I was at the school and most kids didn’t really know much about it at all.”

Walker said his own parents prioritized exposing him to the nation’s historic racial struggles as a young person, but many of his teaching peers may not be comfortable discussing race, racism and inequality, nevermind teaching about desegregation.

District officials said they have been trying to change that. In the last five years, the district has begun prioritizing professional development courses for new teachers on how to create those lesson plans.

“That’s been a focal point for us in light of the 50 years of the Garrity ruling that will be this September,” said Angela Hedley-Mitchell, Boston Public Schools’ executive director of humanities. Hedley-Mitchell said the course, called The History of Boston Public Schools, looks at the city’s history of school segregation dating back to the 1780s. That’s when more than a dozen Black “freemen” petitioned the Legislature to finance education for Black students.

Hedley-Mitchell said based on teachers’ response, the effort has been successful.

“A lot of teachers come up to me and say ‘I had no clue. I’m from Boston and didn’t know this history,’” she said.

“A lot of teachers come up to me and say ‘I had no clue. I’m from Boston and didn’t know this history,’”
Angela Hedley-Mitchell, Boston Public Schools’ executive director of humanities

The Massachusetts-based nonprofit Facing History & Ourselves also offers an eighth grade curriculum about desegregation in Boston.

Program Director Elizabeth Carroll said it was launched in 2010, but it remains unclear how many teachers have used it in Boston or schools nationally. She said the organization plans to start tracking that information in the fall.

Carroll said the lessons were also recently updated to highlight Asian and Latino voices and experiences in 1970s Boston and explore desegregation history beyond busing.

“We wanted to take a step back beyond 1974 as the starting point for this story in order to showcase the longstanding efforts to fight for educational justice,” Carroll told GBH News.

In drafting the curriculum, Carroll said, the nonprofit consulted with Hedley-Mitchell and other educators, and researched books on the era.

“Any time there’s an anniversary, it’s an opportunity to shine a light on something from our past that continues to matter,” Carroll said. “This is one of those times that it’s really important for our city and the greater Boston community to make sure we don’t forget what happened and how it how it’s informing where we are today.”

Laforest agreed, while recognizing that it’s a tough feat amid all the required learning schools must also offer.

“You’re only given 180 days to study large topics, so it’s difficult to really go into depth about specific histories and specific cities,” she said.

Sitting on a bench outside the school the school entrance as the last days of her sophomore year wind down, Laforest said ultimately, it should be required learning and that obligation rests with city leaders.

“The burden should be placed on the city of Boston not only to hold themselves accountable for our racist histories, but to also ensure that … our students are aware of those … those situations that have completely established the way that our city is built.”