Students and educators tackle difficult topics as Long Island school districts look to teach Black history in innovative ways. NewsdayTV’s Shari Einhorn reports. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas, Alejandra Villa

As school districts across Long Island mark Black History Month with assemblies, events and speakers to celebrate African American culture, some educators are taking steps to expand lessons throughout the academic year.

“We know that Black history is American history,” said April Francis-Taylor, director of diversity, equity, and inclusivity for Eastern Suffolk BOCES. “And the goal is to ensure that history is taught throughout the curriculum — not just as a focus in February … and not just about the struggles of Black people, but about bringing Black joy.”

The efforts come amid a controversy in Florida over a proposed nationwide advanced African American studies course that Gov. Ron DeSantis had threatened to ban, saying it pushed a political agenda and lacked value. On Wednesday, the College Board, which oversees Advanced Placement instruction, released a revised framework for the new course, saying that developers consulted with professors from more than 200 colleges, including several historically Black institutions.

On Long Island, some district leaders said they would consider adding it to the curriculum and said it’s important to offer quality and varied instruction on African American history and experience throughout the year and across all grades. State Education Department officials said African American history is embedded in the social studies framework for grades K-12.

“We are also examining how to ensure that state learning standards help districts develop curricula that reflect the contributions of all,” according to a statement from the State Education Department.

Some local school districts have added electives on African American history and culture. Many districts across the Island hold special events in February. Later this month, Eastern Suffolk BOCES will offer training for teachers for the first time on how to change the narrative when teaching about marginalized histories.

Francis-Taylor, a former social studies teacher, will lead the workshop titled “Teaching Honest and Hard History” and will cover how to employ social and emotional learning strategies while teaching children about difficult times in the past, such as slavery, discrimination and Jim Crow laws.

“We have to prepare them to learn some really hard information, but we have to learn it so we can continue to do better,” Francis-Taylor said.

In Riverhead, the high school is in its second year offering a course for juniors and seniors called “The Black Experience in America.”

The course is designed and taught by Jamaal C. Boyce, a longtime social studies teacher who recently wrote a book on teenage perspectives on the Black experience in America, coming out later this month. The elective is open to juniors and seniors, but sophomores can attend with special permission.

“The premise of the course is critical thinking,” Boyce said. “It's forcing the students to look at things and to analyze what they're saying, and to look at them from a different perspective.”

The class, led by Boyce, has discussed topics such as: Racism: Is it harmful? Does it matter if a president is racist? Dating and the Black experience. Students recently debated the issue of the proposed Advanced Placement class on African American studies.

“I gathered their thoughts on it,” he said. “However, I pushed back and challenged their way of thinking.”

There are 17 children enrolled from all different backgrounds and ethnicities. Boyce said he has had interest from districts on Long Island and in New York City on how to offer such a class.

Senior Destiny Baker, 18, said she enrolled because she was interested in speaking her mind.

"It's different from a normal classroom situation where you are just being taught something. You are actively participating. It challenges people," she said. 

Senior Lesley Moran, 18, who is Hispanic, wanted to learn a different perspective about life in America, she said. 

 "It's also a critical thinking class so you get to say what you believe in," she said. "With Mr. Boyce — I can say what I want to say and I know that I am being heard."

Brandy Scott, president of the Long Island Black Educators Association, said schools also should focus on more recent contributions of African Americans. For example, students should learn more about figures such as Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first Black woman to be elected to Congress, she said.

In Uniondale, Superintendent Monique Darrisaw-Akil said Black History Month provides an opportunity to showcase present-day leaders who have contributed to the local community.

On Feb. 16, the district, along with the local Parent Teacher Association, will host a celebration that includes honoring longtime former board member Neville Georges and Hempstead Deputy Town Supervisor Dorothy Goosby. It will focus on "people who are having an impact in our community every day,” Darrisaw-Akil said.

The district will host several events on historical figures this month to give students a deeper understanding of their history and culture — something that an AP Course on African American studies also could do, school leaders said. When it is available, the district plans to have the course reviewed by a school committee. The district already offers African American history and Latino-Caribbean Literature electives at the high school.

If the AP course is approved, “We fully expect to give our students that opportunity," Darrisaw-Akil said, adding that students could learn that “their history is not just about oppression, but it's also about resistance. It's also about joy. It's also about intelligence, creativity and the contributions that people of African descent have made to every aspect of American life that, unfortunately, they don't always get to hear about in all of their classes.”

It was the student body in the Sewanhaka district that led school leaders there to develop an elective called "African Diaspora" that's offered at the five high schools. It started three years ago.

“They were always talking about how different aspects of African American culture were left out of the curriculum and we came up with a curriculum that would teach more than what the New York State Regents is looking for,” said Frank Nuara, social studies chair at Elmont High.

The class is open to 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders and covers the history of the African continent through the modern contributions of African Americans in the United States.

In Jericho, where 30 Advanced Placement classes are listed in the high school course catalog, Superintendent Hank Grishman said educators from the social studies department likely would review an advanced course on African American studies. If approved, “I look forward to the possibility that this may fit the interests of our student body,” he said.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • As school districts across Long Island mark Black History Month, some educators are taking steps to expand lessons throughout the academic year.
  • Some district leaders say it’s important to offer quality and varied instruction on African American history and experience.
  • Several officials say they are willing to look at a new AP Course on African American studies, which has been criticized by the governor of Florida.

Latest videos

YOU'VE BEEN SELECTED

FOR OUR BEST OFFER ONLY 25¢ for 5 months

Unlimited Digital Access.

cancel anytime.