Students at North High School begin their days during Black History Month hearing about lesser-known people and events during morning announcements, and each Friday, students learn mini-history lessons in a trivia game format, allowing students the opportunity to win gift cards for participating.
Learning about black history is important for all students, and it’s imperative to help black students learn about themselves, said Joseph Prevost, a teacher and sponsor of the Black Student Union at North High School in Phoenix Union High School District. Prevost has taught for seven years at the school and acted as the sole sponsor of Black Student Union for the past three years.
“African American History was talked about in my home. I felt like I had an identity there,” Prevost said. “I feel like these kids are being pulled in different directions as to their own personal identity [as] African Americans.”
Why Black History Month is still necessary
After taking an African Diaspora class in college and Prevost said he realized how much about the history of his own people and culture he did not know about.
“I’ve been taking all these other history classes learning about their history and I’m having to take a separate one to learn about mine,” he said. “Why aren’t they having to take that class?”
Many, like Prevost, believe this is one of the reasons that Black History Month remains so necessary. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the historian who created “Negro History Week,” wanted more education about the history of black Americans in public schools. Woodson had said his ultimate hope was that a separate time for black history education would eventually become unnecessary and that the country would recognize black history as U.S. history, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
However, Woodson’s hope has not yet come to fruition, according to Nelia Horton, a senior member of North’s Black Student Union. She said she has not had not much exposure to black culture in her Arizona public school experience. She recalls receiving most of that knowledge while attending a predominantly black school in a small town in Texas.
“When I moved to Arizona, that little bit of black history seemed to be erased from the curriculum,” Norton said. “The fact that our education is limited to white culture and history limits us as future innovators and leaders.”
With that in mind, Prevost and his 25 Black Student Union students facilitate events like the career panel they will host this week on Feb. 28. Successful adults from the community will come and speak to students about their futures and their goals. Past panels were comprised of attorneys, military personnel, educators, an engineer, an orthopedic surgeon and psychologist.
“I think it’s very important that they have the opportunity to see African American adults being successful and productive [and to] realize that they could be that African American doctor or attorney,” Prevost said. “If it makes them feel positive about themselves even for that day, then I think it is beneficial.”
While most of the panelists are African Americans, Prevost said 75 percent of the student attendees last year were not African American.
“It’s meant for everybody at the school. So it’s good to see students who are just interested in general,” he said. “For them to see African Americans in a different context, I think is beneficial.”
Events like these help black students feel more positively about Black History Month, according to Horton. In the Phoenix Union High School District, just over eight percent of the student population identifies as African American and 81 percent identify as Hispanic. Horton said she sees Hispanic culture well represented, and she would like to see her black peers have as much pride in their shared heritage.
“I personally feel that a big part of my identity is my race. It’s not as if I can walk out of the house and forget to put on my brown skin,” Horton said.
What Arizona schools are doing
Across the state other schools are participating in Black History Month festivities.
At Florence Unified’s Poston Butte High School, Cliff Canfield’s world history students spent some class time doing a daily presentation to highlight different aspects of the African American experience.
In the Roosevelt School District, students at C.J. Jorgensen Elementary took part in a classroom door decorating contest and a Black History Month assembly, while students at T.G. Barr Elementary will host a music program and art display on Feb. 28. Fourth-graders at JFK Elementary did research projects on African American figures and three students were selected to present their research at a school-wide assembly.
At North High School, Prevost also placed various African American artifacts in the library to be displayed for students all month long, including items of his own from a trip to Ethiopia and pictures his father took of prominent historical events.
North’s Black Student Union also facilitated a Black History Month spirit week, which included an Activist Day where students dressed as someone who worked for African American advancements, and an Artist Day where students dressed as their favorite African American musician, writer, actor or artist. The week ended with a school-wide assembly celebrating black history and culture where a student sang a gospel song, the school dance group performed and Phoenix College President Dr. Larry Johnson was the keynote speaker.
Events like these are fundamental for the development of black students and their growth, Prevost said.
“I take this seriously. I need these students to excel. I know that one of the first ways of changing their thoughts about themselves is to give them opportunities to see different things,” Prevost said.
Equity and diversity efforts at schools
To create a more inclusive education, Chandler Unified School District created the District Director of Equity Perspective position in July 2018. Dr. Adama Sallu is the new director, and she said her first year has been spent laying a foundation to support the district’s long term work.
“We are working to create equitable learning spaces where all students are affirmed in their diverse identities while supporting the cultural capacity of our teachers in meeting the varied learning needs for all our students,” Dr. Sallu said.
Right now, she said, work is being done to shift faculty and staff mindsets and develop the ability to promote overall equity and inclusion.
As an African American woman, Dr. Sallu said she understands how essential cultural education is because for a member of a minority race one’s culture is very closely attached to one’s way of life.
“Living as a person of color, especially as a black person, in these United States of America is [a life] of continued tension,” Dr. Sallu said. “Thus, I am constantly negotiating the tension in order to live my full humanity.”
Chandler Unified is working on integrating learning materials that highlight the experience of all Americans, according to Sallu.
“Black history is American history and so are Hispanic, Native American and Asian histories,” Dr. Sallu said. “Schools must be intentional in creating learning spaces where American history is taught from multiple perspectives.”