Although advocates see the need to teach Black history in schools, they also say that's just one of a number of changes that need to take place in Rochester's educational system.
The Barbershop Talk's Black History series held a group discussion Saturday on the question "Should Black History Be Taught in School?" The speakers included Rochester for Justice President Kamau Wilkins, Toby Taylor and Chrystal Henry Smith. The discussion was moderated by William "Bud" Whitehorn and Andre Crockett.
Wilkins said it's obvious that Black history should be taught in schools. However, in addition to the curriculum itself, Wilkins said there should be more Black teachers communicating that history.
"There's a question of honesty — how honest are we going to be about the Black experience within America?" he said. "To really connect with students, you have to have some experience in the subject matter that you're talking about."
Students of color make up a substantial percentage of the overall student population in Rochester Public Schools. According to the district, minority students made up more than 43% of the district as of October 2020. However, as of December, only 3.5% of the district's certified staff, which includes administrators, principals and teachers, were people of color.
Taylor said it's important to remember that Black history is American history — and that it shouldn't be treated as something separate. He also said Black history should be taught year-round and not just in February, which is Black History Month. Crockett said teaching Black history has to mean they're covering more than just figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass.
Although the panel was billed as a discussion about Black history in the school system, the conversation included topics related to the Black experience in Rochester: from the recent resignation of Superintendent Michael Muñoz and his relationship with the Black community, to the environment within the School District overall, to the process of vaccinating the public against COVID-19.
"People of color barely have control over their own narrative here in Rochester," Whitehorn said, a point that was emphasized more than once throughout the discussion. "That's the key point."
The School District has made equity one of its highest priorities. In 2020, it released a three-year equity plan. Among other priorities, that plan calls for the hiring of an associate superintendent of equity and accountability/opportunity.
Last year, the district started delving into that plan with the hiring of two equity coordinators. One of them, Sara-Louise Henry, will be working with the district's curriculum to make sure it reflects diverse experiences. The other equity coordinator, Willie Tipton, is partly focusing on increasing the number of minority teachers in the district.
Crockett said many of the students he knows don't even want to be in school. The lack of having a diverse teaching staff, he said, contributes to that issue.
"No teachers look like them; no principals look like them," he said during Saturday's panel. "I can't imagine me growing up in a community like this and going to a school system like that — without seeing anyone that looked like me .... that's very difficult for our kids."