New York State School Boards Association

Buffalo embraces 'culturally responsive' curriculum

by Michael Goot

On Board Online • January 13, 2020

By Michael Goot
Special Correspondent

Last spring, 11th-grade students in Buffalo Public Schools read about the Civil Rights movement and the famous march by Martin Luther King Jr. over the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery to fight for voting rights.

Those 70 students saw the famous bridge up close on a four-day field trip last April and even re-created a photo from that historical event.

The experience was powerful for the students, according to Associate Superintendent Fatima Morrell.

"They're having these experiences that are authentic, hands-on and are really raising an awareness of our students," she said. "You're only going to see more attachment to the school."

Morrell heads the city school district's Office for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Initiatives, which Superintendent Kriner Cash created in June. The idea was to bring several educational initiatives under one umbrella and to create some new ones.

Morrell said Cash believed that a culturally relevant curriculum was the "missing enzyme" that would help raise the achievement of all students in the district. The district is 48% black and 20% Latino.

The students who visited Selma were part of a program called Our Story. They participate in research projects about the history of African-Americans, Native Americans and Latino-Americans. The curriculum relies heavily on primary and secondary source documents from authors of color including newspaper clippings, videos and other materials.

Other materials used in Buffalo include:

  • New Jersey's Amistad curriculum, which was developed in response to a 2002 state law that called for New Jersey schools to incorporate African-American history into their social studies curriculums.
  • "Fences," a play by August Wilson about a father whose experience with discrimination affects his decisions and his relationship with his son. School officials also implemented the August Wilson Monologue Competition.
  • The 1619 Project. On Aug. 20, 2019, The New York Times Magazine devoted an issue to the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in America and documents the history of black Americans up to the present day. While the Smithsonian provided research and fact-checking, the content is controversial. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson said the Times presents an "unbalanced, one-sided account" that " left most of the history out."

It's important to include diverse authors in the curriculum so students have more of an opportunity to see themselves, Morrell said.

Author Wes Moore, who spoke at NYSSBA's 2014 Annual Convention & Education Expo, is one. He addresses a key issue for many students: what shapes my destiny? Moore's book, The Other Wes Moore, is about two men with the same name who grew up within blocks apart of each other. One became a Rhodes Scholar, war veteran and White House Fellow and the other is serving a life sentence for murder.

Other multicultural education initiatives in Buffalo include My Brother's Keeper Male Academy, which serves 150 seventh- and eighth-grade males of color; Scholars for Social Justice, which involves students attending professional development workshops to learn about social justice and they in turn, can train their classmates; and The Big Sister/Little Sister program, which involves professional women in the community mentoring young girls of color.

In addition, Buffalo has trained more than 3,000 teachers in culturally responsive education. Morrell said part of the training challenges teachers, 80% of whom are white, to examine whether their expectations for people of color are too low.

"We're all jaded by the water of racism," Morrell said. "We're just swimming in it. This is an implicit bias that all these kids can't be an AP class. This is an implicit bias that they can't be excellent, that they can't do this kind of work."

One district employee who felt changed as a result of the training was district data coach Nicole Buccilli.

"One of the biggest awarenesses for myself and other staff members in our district is seeing that slavery didn't end right around the Civil War time period," Buccilli said. "That legacy had moved forward with our nation and we haven't quite healed from that," she said.

Buccilli, who is white, said she understands that she has certain privileges based upon skin color. It could be as simple as being able to get a bandage that matches her skin color or seeing white characters in children's books.

The training was designed to make participants acknowledge the history of racism in the culture and help school employees create a warm, welcoming environment that is accepting of students' diverse backgrounds and allows them to grow, she said.

"It's really work that everyone needs to be doing if we want our society to heal as a whole and be accepting and to have higher academic outcomes for all students," Buccilli said.

Studying African-American history and culture benefits everyone, according to Morrell. If white students know nothing about African American history beyond slavery, they lack a "globally competent" education, she said.

Black history is replete with a "legacy of brilliance" that students can find inspirational, Morrell said. Notable black Americans have included James Baldwin, Shirley Chisholm, Frederick Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson and Sojourner Truth, to name just a few.

Morrell said she expects students to be more engaged as a result of the district's multicultural initiatives. Test scores should rise and disciplinary problems should decrease.

Already there are early signs of progress. The district recorded a 10.6% decrease in suspension of black students from the in the 2018-19 school year compared to the prior year. There was a 28.6% drop in suspension of Latino students during that same period.

"We actually met our New York state goals for reducing suspension for students of color, particularly our males of color," Morrell said.


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