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Buffalo schools look to work African-American history into curriculum

The black slave Estevanico was among the early explorers of what would become the American Southwest, but you may not have learned about him in school.

York was the only black member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, but he probably didn’t come up in class, either.

And there’s a good chance the history books may have left out black inventors, like Lewis Latimer, credited with adding a longer life to Thomas Edison’s light bulb.

That's why Buffalo Public Schools is looking at how to infuse a more accurate and complete picture of African and African-American history into the district’s social studies curriculum.

The topic has long been a discussion across the district – where nearly half the students are black – but it is percolating again now that Buffalo has started planning for a social studies redesign to be implemented over the next few years.

The revamp coincides with the state Education Department’s adoption of a new framework for teaching social studies to align schools with more rigorous learning standards, explained Anne Botticelli, the district’s chief academic officer. The framework serves as a guide for districts to write their own social studies curriculum.

In Buffalo, the new curriculum not only would reflect more African and African-American content, but include more historical context about the role of Latinos and other cultural groups who make up a growing portion of the district’s enrollment.

The intent is to help more students see themselves in the curriculum in hopes of keeping them more engaged, Botticelli said.

The district, for example, pointed to the graduation rate for its young men and boys of color: 55 percent for African-American males and 44 percent for Latino males.

“There’s a lot behind those numbers,” said Fatima Morrell, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment, “and we are of the firm belief that some of the teaching practices and strategies – even materials that we’re using in the classrooms – can be developed and enhanced in such a way that students are engaged in learning and they’ll want to stay in school and they’ll want to graduate.”

Possible areas of study might include the contributions of ancient Africa; the evolution of African societies; the development of reform organizations, such as the National Urban League; pre-Civil Rights Supreme Court cases; and the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Eva Doyle, a retired Buffalo teacher.

Eva Doyle, a retired Buffalo teacher.

The district should have done this years ago, said Eva Doyle, a retired teacher and local historian.

“I’ve been fighting this battle for more than 30 years,” Doyle said. “I’m glad we have African-American history month in February, but my message was we should be teaching this all year long as a normal part of the school curriculum.”

As a teacher, Doyle was a vocal advocate for infusing African and African-American content into the regular curriculum and found ways to incorporate into her classes the likes of Estevanico, Latimer and York.

“When I was in high school, I learned about Lewis and Clark,” Doyle said, “but no one ever mentioned York.”

The district appeared to be making some headway during the 1980s when a good number of teachers received infusion training, Doyle said. It fizzled out, she said.

Doyle even spent a lot of her own money to create a resource center where teachers could find materials to use in class. That, too, went away when Doyle retired.

“This is an old story, really,” said Ken Holley, the longtime operator of Zawadi Books on Jefferson Avenue, which specializes in books about people of African descent.

It’s not unusual for customers to come to Holley searching for resources that help educate them and their children about the African-American experience that they’re not learning at school.

Holley is a bit concerned Buffalo's curriculum might not change much this time around, particularly these days with teachers being asked to do more.

“I’m skeptical if the teachers don’t buy into it,” Holley said. “You got to ask yourself, ‘How are teachers going to teach something they don’t know and never been taught themselves?’”

Books on the shelves at Zawadi Books on Jefferson Avenue which helps customers looking for resources to educate themselves and their kids on African-American history. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Books on the shelves at Zawadi Books on Jefferson Avenue which helps customers looking for resources to educate themselves and their kids on African-American history. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Teachers need to be trained and given the proper resources if this is going to work, Doyle and Holley said.

The district agreed.

“This material, when done right, is very rigorous in itself,” said Superintendent Kriner Cash. “If you’re not comfortable and it’s rigorous, you’re going to have to work harder than the students.”

For help, the district has turned to several potential resources, including the web-based curriculum put together by the New Jersey State Education Department’s Amistad Commission.

The Amistad Commission was created by legislation in 2002 to ensure public schools in New Jersey implement materials that “integrate the history and contributions of African-Americans.”

New Jersey is the only state in the nation that created a government office with this goal in mind, but the state still has a long way to go, said Stephanie James Wilson, the commission’s executive director.

“Our goal was to cover the missing pieces,” she said. “So for people, they look and say ‘Oh, this is all African-American history.’ It is not. It is United States history, but what we do understand is these are the pieces so often left out of the narrative in the textbooks. They need to be included.”

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