Putting black history at forefront

Published: Saturday, December 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

When Shirley Feagan, a biology teacher at Eastside High School, hears her black students using the N-word, she stops and explains the history behind the word and the black leaders who fought to end its use.

"The kids don't even know why," Feagan said. "I had to explain to them why they don't use the N-word. It is a sign of oppression. It is calling someone less than a human being."

Feagan traces many of the challenges her students face in school to a lack of instruction about black culture and history.

"I feel like these children - because they do not know the history - they don't take their education seriously," Feagan said. "When I went to school, it was, 'You need to go to school because ...' Students now, they have no sense of that."

Gainesville community leaders are also questioning whether African and African-American history and culture are being taught appropriately and adequately at every grade level in Alachua County.

That topic and others will be addressed at a conference today, sponsored by the Anti-Racism Coalition, titled, "A Question of Race: Education in Alachua County."

The school district has repeatedly insisted that the curriculum meets state standards of instruction on the topic, and an informal board meeting in May resulted in the district compiling information from teachers about the issue.

"We need to do something proactive to clear the air on this issue," school district Superintendent Dan Boyd said during that meeting. "Sitting on our hands and not responding is not what I would want to do. But, I will work with in the school district, school by school, classroom by classroom, and detail what we are doing."

Boyd declined to comment this week on the results of that survey through the district's spokes- woman.

School Board member Eileen Roy is scheduled to present the results of that survey at the Anti-Racism Coalition meeting.

One thing the data collected illustrates is that from kindergarten through graduation, students are getting a heavy dose of black history, and most students are probably familiar with the likes of the Emancipation Proclamation, Rosa Parks and Kwanzaa by the time they reach middle school.

A lesson plan that was common in the report among many elementary schools features "Follow the Drinking Gourd," where students study a song that helped escaping slaves navigate the Underground Railroad. It often incorporates reading, music and art.

Much of the curriculum was focused on or around Black History Month in February.

That is detrimental to the goal of keeping black history equal and not separate, said Gainesville activist Harriet Ludwig, education committee chair for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"I'm not sure that everyone understands the idea of infusion," she said. "There are a lot of schools which appear to be doing a lot, but only two reports indicate infusion in regular curriculum where it chronologically belongs."

Debbie Gallagher, the head of multicultural curriculum for Alachua County, said she was encouraged by the results of the survey.

"That was very exciting to see the kind of things that are being done," she said.

Gallagher also serves on the state task force designed to help implement the amendment to Florida's education code in 1994, which mandates specific black history instruction.

"It is so important for all of our students to see themselves in society, in books and movies and history," Gallagher said. "I am so proud of what our teachers do in the classroom every day."

Feagan said she works hard to infuse black history into her curriculum. For Feagan, that is highlighting black scientists who contributed to America.

She also coordinates assemblies and lectures for Black History Month, but said she wished that the information was included in daily curriculum.

"That is the only time this information is public, and a lot of the times it is not even recognized in schools," Feagan said of February. "I wish there was something we could do about it, but it is like fighting a losing battle."

Gallagher disagreed and said Black History Month is the perfect opportunity for teachers to emphasize that part of their curriculum.

"Frankly for me, having commemorative days and months is a good thing because we're recognizing excellence," she said. "I feel that this school district has worked very hard to provide schools with resources and training."

For Feagan, those resources are materializing next week.

She and her fellow Eastside High School teachers are squeezing in a tour about the Civil Rights Movement when they head to Birmingham, Ala., for a science teacher conference. The school district is paying for the tour.

Feagan said it is vital that educators understand black history and culture, especially in a school where 60 percent of the students are black.

Megan Rolland can be reached at 338-3104 or megan.rolland@ gvillesun.com.

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