How Brooklyn Schools Approached Black History Month This Year

The celebration of Black History Month in Brooklyn schools has been a yearly event for decades, learning of great Black leaders, the struggle for civil rights and justice, and an understanding of Black culture. Usually, the month is a time to acknowledge the resilience of Black people.

This year’s Black History Month was unfortunately marked by a long list of racist events. Among them was the revelation that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam wore blackface for his yearbook in the early 1980s, not to mention the recent reports that his wife, Pam, handed out cotton balls to Black students during a tour of the Governor’s mansion. Then came actor Liam Neeson’s comments that he considered murdering a Black man to revenge a friend’s rape. Not to forget, in the days leading up to February, that a video emerged showing two female students from the famed Poly Prep school in Dyker Heights wearing blackface and imitating monkeys.

Clearly, Black History Month in 2019 had a lot to deal with, and it was a wonder on how schools in Brooklyn approached the topic. This is especially so considering, earlier this month, Black Lives Matter Brooklyn took part in a rally for improvement on how Black history is taught in schools.

With that, BKLYNER set out to ask various Brooklyn schools on what their curriculum for Black History Month entails, and if the current events surrounding racism are openly discussed.

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First and foremost, the Department of Education was contacted. With over 400 schools ranging in grades K – 12 in the borough, one would wonder how the average public school student in Brooklyn has been taught about this subject.

DOE spokesperson Miranda Barbot explained, “Chancellor Carranza has prioritized advancing equity, reducing racial disparities, and expanding culturally responsive education across New York City public schools, and we’ve made progress but acknowledge there is more work to do. Black history is celebrated across our school communities, including in our social studies teaching throughout the year in grades K-12.”

When asked further on what was meant on there being “more work to do”, Barbot clarified it was “to advance equity, reduce racial disparities, and expand culturally responsive education.”

According to the DOE’s social studies curriculum, Black history is clearly not limited to only February. Starting in Kindergarten, students are taught to understand the uniqueness of diversity. From there, as students advance, they learn about how human history has been shaped by geography, the understanding community and the meaning of family. By the time public school students reach middle school, they are taught in a way to understand how power, wealth and morality also shape world history. This happens all year round, leaving no group of people out. African historical figures and events are also introduced throughout the year, as well as historical Black American figures and events.

As for how recent racist events were approached within public schools, the DOE explained that it was investing $23 million into anti-bias training for its staff. In regards to how exactly those events were tackled, the DOE said they would look into it, but were unable to provide information before this article was published.

A scholar dressed up as Thurgood Marshall for Black History Month spirit day, courtesy of Success Academy.

Next came charter schools, which Brooklyn has the most of compared to the rest of the City. Ascend Charter Schools, which has 15 schools, including one high school, was contacted but did not respond to BKLYNER’s phone message. Success Academy, which has sixteen schools operating from Bensonhurst to Bed-Stuy to Bergen Beach, responded to our inquiry.

“We view black history as simply American history, and we study it year round — not just in February,” explained a Success Academy spokesperson. “In grades K-12, we make sure scholars explore history in a way that gives them a deep understanding that history is not a series of events led and narrated by white men, but is rather an ongoing and complex narrative of diverse experiences, perspectives, and voices.”

Among the ways Success Academy’s embraces Black history is not just through history lessons, which teach much more than just slavery, Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement, but also Black culture. Some schools have Spirit Days, in which students, or scholars, dress up as their favorite historical figure. Others visit various museums. At SA Fort Greene, Batingua Arts gave an interactive dance with drumming and singing. Finally, some schools studied Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still, I Rise” and wrote short personal narratives responding to the poem’s theme of overcoming challenges.

Success Academy seems to acknowledge that more needs to be done on this topic, according to a recent blog post. In it, a middle school teacher named Trevor Baisden, explains the need to make Black history just another part of American history, and that Black history does not end March 1st.   

Although Success Academy was asked about how recent racist events were discussed at its schools, there was no reply to the emailed question.

When it came to non-public schools, the Diocese of Brooklyn did not respond to BKLYNER’s repeated attempts to discuss how Catholic schools approach the issue.

As for independent schools, BKLYNER reached out to five: Packer Collegiate, Berkeley Carroll, Brooklyn Amity, Bay Ridge Prep, and of course, Poly Prep. Out of those five, only Bay Ridge Prep participated in this article. Berkeley Carroll, Brooklyn Amity and Poly Prep did not respond to our emails, and Packer Collegiate declined to comment.

At Bay Ridge Prep, Allan Pestotnik is one of the small school’s two middle school teachers, as well as its diversity coordinator. Although this is his first year at the school, he has been focused on making this subject important to his students.

“We believe it should be taught year-round,” Pestotnik said in a phone interview. “We spread this message that Black History is American History. The problems with racism is still around. We don’t sugarcoat it because it is not a thing of the past.”

Pestotnik’s approach includes connecting current events with the curriculum. Meaning, while he teaches his students about Black history, he allows them to discuss what is still happening to Black people these days.

“We don’t stop our curriculum,” he says. “Rather, we try to incorporate and talk about what happened.”

For instance, there are discussions on Colin Kaepernick’s protest over the treatment of Black people in the country. Pestotnik even showed the music video to Childish Gambino’s “This is America”. All is this is done through a social justice lens.

“No student complains,” he says. “They’re pleased.”

It appears that while Brooklyn educators are doing a lot to showcase the importance of Black history and culture, some recognize that more needs to be done. As this past month has shown, racism is still a serious problem, including in Brooklyn.

Sadly – none of the schools answered our questions about how recent events were discussed – if you are a student or an educator at a Brooklyn school and would like to weigh in – please leave a comment or reach out to us via email to editor@bklyner.com – we’d love to hear from you.

UPDATE: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn has responded to this article with the following: “Throughout the month of February, Catholic academies and schools throughout Brooklyn offered opportunities for our students to be educated in the lessons of Black History Month, such as the program offered St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Academy in Prospect Lefferts Gardens fittingly named ‘Honoring The Past, Inspiring The Future.’ Through assignments, readings, classroom instruction, and school assemblies, our students were taught the lessons of the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement and many of the African American trailblazers who have changed the course of our history. I am also proud of the students at Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy,  who created a wax museum replica which served as an invaluable Black History Month learning experience for all students,” said Dr. Thomas Chadzutko, Superintendent of Schools.

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Megan McGibney

A native New Yorker, Megan McGibney enjoys such topics as education, the arts and business. A 2008 graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, she is also an adjunct lecturer at CUNY. You can reach out to her at www.meganmcgibney.com or @MeganMcGibney.

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