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School officials in Maryland strengthen requirements for Holocaust education

Stars of David were erected last year in front of Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh with the names of those killed in a mass shooting. (Matt Rourke/AP)

State officials in Maryland said Wednesday they are strengthening requirements for Holocaust education in middle and high schools in response to concerns raised by advocates and elected officials.

In an announcement days before the anniversary of a massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, state officials said they are taking steps to include learning about the roots of anti-Semitism in middle-school social studies classes. They also want to deepen instruction about the Holocaust in high school U.S. history and modern world history courses.

“We strongly believe there is a need to enhance Holocaust education in our state, so that all children learn about this horrific event and ensure it never happens again,” State Superintendent Karen B. Salmon said in a statement. “We see the changes that we are making as a substantive improvement over the current objectives and frameworks.”

Salmon said state officials would work with Maryland’s 24 school systems to make sure teachers had the chance for training opportunities to provide “the tools necessary to teach the Holocaust with confidence.”

Several elected leaders and advocates lauded the state’s plans, citing a critical need for greater awareness and education. Some pointed to an increase in hate crimes, incidents and threats at schools.

“We thought the state curriculum guidelines were lacking and fell short of the depth of instruction in the Holocaust and its causes necessary to ensure our children learn about it and that our society never repeats it again,” said Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

Libit said the timing of the state announcement was resonant — nearing the first anniversary of a shooting rampage that claimed the lives of 11 worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

‘How can you fight hate?’: Schools mourn, and act, following synagogue massacre

“I’m hopeful that this weekend, as Jews across this state go to synagogue — and think about what happened a year ago in Pittsburgh — knowing that our state’s education leaders made such a strong statement to require more intensive education about the Holocaust will be very meaningful,” he said.

Other leaders said the move was also important given findings about a lack of knowledge among the young about the genocide of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.

A recent survey found that two-thirds of U.S. millennials could not identify Auschwitz, among the most notorious concentration camps built by the Nazis during World War II.

The same poll, released last year by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, found that 22 percent of millennials said they had not heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it — twice the percentage of U.S. adults overall.

Holocaust study: Two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is

“If there is a gap in awareness when Holocaust survivors are still here and living, it’s really hard to imagine how difficult it will be when they are no longer here to tell their stories,” said Meredith Weisel, director of Maryland government and community relations with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

A network of survivors speak to students in schools, recalling their experiences in powerful firsthand accounts, she said.

Earlier in the fall, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Baltimore Jewish Council and state lawmakers wrote to the state asking for greater clarity on requirements for Holocaust education. Their request followed legislation on Holocaust education earlier this year that was unsuccessful but sparked the broader idea of going to state education officials.

“We were very happy that the State Department of Education acknowledged some deficiencies in the way they were teaching it.” said Del. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County). “It’s great news that they are going to alter and beef up the curriculum.”

State officials said Maryland’s middle school social studies “framework” — which provides guidance for school systems as they develop curriculum and teacher training — will be revised in 2020 and that the state will advocate to include study of the roots of anti-Semitism to “contextualize the study of the Holocaust when they get to high school.”

At the high school level, the U.S. history framework is in the process of being expanded to help students understand the origins of the Holocaust before they examine the American response to it.

Similarly, in modern world history, an existing objective about the study of atrocities will be expanded so that students specifically “evaluate the cause, course, and consequences of the Holocaust.”

School system officials in Prince George’s County said their social studies curriculum includes Holocaust history at the high school level and that they are ready to embrace the impending state changes.

A spokesman from Montgomery County’s school system said the district believes it is critically important for students to learn about the Holocaust and other genocides as part of their public education.

“It is essential that students not only understand the Holocaust, but also the conditions that allowed for the Holocaust to occur and the need for society to remain vigilant about preventing discrimination and prejudice,” spokesman Derek Turner said.

Turner noted that the Holocaust is already included in the county’s modern world history curriculum, along with Advanced Placement World History and the state’s curriculum for world history.

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