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Rod Watson: Giving every student pride in heritage

When the pictures of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Bill Gates appeared on screen during the workshop, the young men immediately recognized them.

The images of Benjamin Banneker, Henry Sampson and Lonnie Johnson? Not so much. None of the students of color at last weekend’s Boys to Men Youth Empowerment Conference recognized any of the highly accomplished blacks.

Three decades after the Buffalo Public Schools began a piecemeal "infusion" project to integrate African and African-American contributions into the curriculum as a matter of course rather than an add-on, it seemed not much has changed.

But maybe it’s about to – with implications for everything from suspension and dropout rates to special education placements.

The district is in the first year of a three-year effort to let students of color – who make up 80 percent of the enrollment – see themselves in the history, literature and math being taught every day.

It would be easy to dismiss the importance of that when you can take for granted that your history is being taught, when the default setting is that white accomplishment matters and that white achievers automatically are worthy of study.

But one mark of human intelligence is being able to extrapolate from one’s own experience to imagine the impact on others. If African-American, Hispanic and other students of color see the contributions of scientists like Banneker, nuclear engineers like Sampson and inventors like Johnson in the subjects being taught, they will envision such futures for themselves and become as engaged as any other student.

That was the idea behind the initiative launched in the 1980s to infuse the curriculum with the contributions of non-whites. But that effort floundered because it was voluntary, embraced by only a few teachers and resisted by most because the district never laid the groundwork to get their buy-in.

This time, as part of Superintendent Kriner Cash’s "New Education Bargain," the district is building the effort from the ground up, board members and parent advocates say. It is bringing in parents, teachers and principals and providing the training so that a staff that is 85 percent white sees the necessity of what could seem a perilous initiative and also has the tools to implement it.

A key is to avoid blaming teachers for the racial achievement gap while acknowledging that gap and giving them the skills to help close it, said Fatima Morrell, the assistant superintendent tapped to lead the effort. The effort includes bringing in urban education experts like Christopher Emdin and borrowing from the work of New Jersey’s nationally recognized Amistad Commission.

This doesn’t mean pretending that teachers don’t see color, Morrell said, because that leaves students thinking "you don’t recognize me if you don’t see color, because I’m black, or I’m Latino."

Rather, it means having teachers constantly asking themselves if they are doing all they can to make students feel valued. On the district’s part, it means giving teachers practical tips, such as how to incorporate Imhotep into the teaching of math, said Morrell, incredulous that students didn’t recognize the Egyptian polymath during the conference workshop by Muhammad’s Mosque 23.

"They can tell you a whole lot more than Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman," she said of students who’ve benefited from the early efforts of the three-year program, which has the wonky name Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching.

The first-year efforts include African-American infusion academies at Lafayette and Middle Early College high schools, with teachers working Saturdays and after-school helping African-American and Latino students with an "Our Story" research project so they know their history didn’t begin with slavery.

The goal, of course, is to infuse such subject matter throughout the day-to-day curriculum, rather than as a supplement. The district has trained nearly 1,000 high school teachers this year, Morrell said, and will expand the effort over the next two years. While the importance of this for students of color should be obvious, it also can change the attitudes of white students who’ve been similarly shortchanged by the fact that the conquerors write history. But that adage says nothing about whether the account is accurate.

History, as traditionally taught, is the original definition of fake news. Students deserve better.

Morrell recalls walking into a classroom where W.E.B. Du Bois’ "The Souls of Black Folk" was being taught alongside William Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" in a compare and contrast session.

“My expectation is that this is going to become the new norm of teaching,” she said.

If she’s right, 84 years after Carter G. Woodson warned of "The Mis-Education of the Negro," all Buffalo students will get the education they deserve.

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