*Editor’s Note: There will be a community discussion Saturday, March 11, 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. to discuss strategies and the movement going forward.
Both Toni Morrison and Jane Austen explore femininity, sexism and second-class citizenship as authors. Yet Austen is more likely to be assigned reading.
BLM@School, a movement to recognize and affirm black identities in school, wants to change this. In an ideal world, Morrison would be taught as well because seeing her work would affirm to young black students that black literature is just as important as mainstream, white literature and that they too can become an author, the movement states.
“Black lives matter is more of a movement than an organization,” said Chris Widmaier, explaining the notion of the day. Widmaier is a science teacher at World of Inquiry School No. 58. “We from the very beginning, said it needed to be aligned with the principles of BLM and to support the general idea of BLM, that there is systemic violence and racism against black people in our nation that needs to be addressed and that schools play a role in that in a lot of different ways.”
And in a District where the majority of students are black and also more likely to drop out than to graduate, it seemed necessary. 57.3 percent of District students are black and last year just 45.5 percent of students graduated.
“We weren’t sure how people were going to take it, us doing a Black Lives Matter at School Day, but we were gong to do it regardless, whether or not we had any support from the big honchos,” said Lowan Brown, Assistant Principal at Joseph C. Wilson Foundation Academy.
As an early organizer who joined in November she said they were so quiet about their work that initially they didn’t even use their District emails. While she clarified that they weren’t doing things “on the down low,” they were still cautious and wanted to work out the day of action and learning before getting the District involved. They expected resistance and thought administration in the District wouldn’t want to support the movement because of how controversial Black Lives Matter has been both nationally and locally.
Yet support from the “big honchos” actually came. The Rochester Teachers Association backed it, the Association of Supervisors and Administrators followed suit and so did the Board of Education. And in early February Superintendent Barbara Deane Williams emailed her the entire District, officially backing the movement, sharing with teachers and District employees resources and contacts to get them moving:
“As educators, we need to have courageous, honest dialogs about what is happening in our society and in our students’ lives Building strong relationships with students and colleagues is a critical component of our work to know ‘Every Student By Face and Name. Every School, Every Classroom. To and Through Graduation.'”
However, with so much national and local vitriol for the Black Lives Matter movement, organizers were up against a wall when it came to the community, using most media opportunities to explain how the movement wasn’t propaganda or an attempt to indoctrinate young students. Most critics felt the conversation was inappropriate for children or they’d be told what to think but Brown said most of the youth are actually familiar with these issues and, if anything, discussing them in schools can provide clarity.
“They’re not too young to see what’s going on,” said Brown. She pointed out that World of Inquiry, which had largely spearheaded the movement had its own demonstrations previously. Earlier in the Fall, the boys’ soccer team made national headlines for refusing to take a knee during the national anthem in protest of how black and brown lives are treated in America.
Yet organizers, who largely felt they were facilitating a conversation, not creating one, were attacked as spreading propaganda. and nationwide these movements were attacked as well. Parents blasted the movement, responding to local media articles, stating they’d be keeping their children home from school that day in protest. While some argued it could bring students closer to their teacher, most were worried that organizers were simply trying to breed the next generation of activists.
“You can’t say you’re not Black Lives Matter but then take some of their ideals and principals and even use their name in yours,” said Chris Carty-Wilson, one of the most outspoken critics. “If you want to have these conversations, fine, have them but do them in your own home. Don’t tell my kids your beliefs, I don’t tell your kid mine.”
The organizers answered again and again, distancing themselves from the moment and stating it’s about affirming their lives; bringing their identities into the school and not only recognizing but celebrating them. Affirming their lives can allow students to connect with the content and classroom more, experts have stated. They’re taking the principals from the national movement, creating an adapted version for the local education world.
“The other reason it is not affiliated with BLM the national organization is because a number of our organizers are white and BLM is about self-determination and black voices are being front,” Widmaier said. “That’s a piece of it and we collaborated with local BLM organizers. So they were in support of the initiative but again also, it’s a movement. People want this organization that they can point to. A lot of the time it comes from that criticism that people are trying to point to this organization that is trying to take over the minds and lives of children and it’s not really that. It’s a set of principles and ideas that anybody can get behind.”
Brown said either way, regardless of the hate coming their way, the organizers would stay steadfast: February 17th would be about affirming black lives. And on the day of, organizers, teachers and advocates readied themselves for the day, not quite sure what to expect.
For some schools that day meant reading books with black and brown characters. For others, it meant actually rallying or having the hard discussions on race and prejudice that aren’t often held within school. Brown clarified that for the most part these lessons and discussions were age-appropriate. Kindergartners weren’t asked to discuss police brutality but instead dissected fairness and prejudice.
However, for as much work as they put into it, discussing the day in countless articles and with a number of meetings, in the months leading to the day, struggles abounded.
For the most part, the movement fell on the shoulders of teachers; how would they bring the message into their classrooms that day? While administrations helped create lesson plans and spread the word, it mostly fell on teachers because they interact directly with students. Yet most of them come from different backgrounds, according to WXXI which reported last year that more than 80 percent of District teachers are white: “Rochester students of color make up 90 percent of the school population, but teachers of color comprise just 25 percent.” Past this, they’re also likely to reside in the suburbs. While this doesn’t automatically mean they can’t understand or don’t support BLM, it does present a disconnect for students and teachers who at the end of the day leave school to two vastly different realities.
For many students, their reality is a heavily segregated Rochester with a huge income gap between neighborhoods and the suburbs. Rochester ranks top five for child poverty, meaning students in our schools are some of the poorest and hungriest in the nation. According to the D&C, this rate isn’t for similarly sized cities; it’s comparing Rochester children to all cities.
“Black people in our community know we live in a racist society because it’s their lived experience,” said Widmaier. “When it’s not in your lived experience it can be harder or you don’t come in contact with it through the people you know or the community you live in. It can be hard to recognize how important it is to address so it is a challenge to get the same kind of commitment but what we find is that when we are able to engage people and we are able to have these dialog it becomes something that people recognize we need to address in our community.”
An additional issue? The District is large and each school has its own culture, meaning the day would be digested and celebrated differently at each school. Though BLM@School provided resources, speakers and even facilitated professional developments, Brown admits every student was at the mercy of their teacher and school administration. They could decide to what degree the school or individual classrooms participated, which meant some schools might flourish like Wilson and World of Inquiry but others, like SOTA, would falter.
On the morning of February 17th, social media exploded with claims that the school wouldn’t be partaking in the day. At about 7:30 a.m., the first reports trickled out that Principal Brenda Pacheco threatened the students in the morning announcements that if they proceeded with a student-planned sit-in they’d be suspended.
“The only moving you’ll be doing is back to your class,” students claim she said, which they took as “a slap in the face” due to the heaviness of the Black Lives Matter movement to them personally. And just a few hours later, an email from Pacheco leaked telling teachers and staff to encourage students to stay in class and not walk out. If they did, she stated, they wouldn’t be allowed re-entry and she’d see them after the February recess at school on Monday.
However, Pacheco states in an exclusive interview with OM that SOTA did take the day seriously though they clearly didn’t meet student demands. She said days in advance she assembled a team of school officials to create lesson plans. It was decided Social Studies teachers would mainly teach to the day. This would both ensure every student was exposed to the material since every student is mandated to take Social Studies but also relieve the burden for teachers who didn’t feel comfortable teaching this kind of material.
She stated that she also shared these lesson plans with multiple principals and leaders around the District and was never told to fix or change them. She said teachers and students also had days to come to her and speak with her about any actions so when she learned about the sit-in only the day of she cancelled it because she didn’t have enough time to “plan accordingly.” She states she would have opened up cafeteria doors and gave the students space but instead when faced that day with their plan told them to pocket it.
They didn’t and at 2 p.m. students began to trickle out of their classrooms. About 400-500 students gathered in the building’s front entrance. Pacheco said she urged some students to go back but when they remained silent she recognized it as a legitimate sit-in and left them alone, she says only getting involved when needing to make space.
“The kids sang, told stories. It was beautiful,” she said, before adding: “If I had planned it, it wouldn’t have gone so well.”
However, students outside and some local activists were protesting the school’s handling of the day outside on the sidewalk and during the day the social media posts had only gotten more and more popular. Soon her contact information was making the rounds.
“I felt cyber bullied,” she said pointing to a stack of emails she received in one day.
The credibility of Pacheco has been called into question multiple times in the days since, with students claiming she threatened to suspend them or expel them in person though she states that she simply said they couldn’t re-enter if they left as the email to teachers showed highlighted. However many students said she worded her email that way to be purposely vague and in person threatened to suspend them.
“I never see her,” said one SOTA student who asked to speak anonymously. “She’s always in her office, at the end of some long hallway. She doesn’t care what we think or what we want. And if you’re not a drama major, you definitely don’t matter.”
“People think SOTA is some great school but honestly, we have these issues here,” the student continued. “Are you trying to say we don’t matter? Or that we only do when we have some kind of talent to bring here?”
Pacheco said she plans to keep her finger on the pulse in the future and saw this as more than a wake-up call. There was a clear gap in what students expected from the day and what the school gave them. According to many students, this is the result of pattern in SOTA, one of disregard and neglect but Pacheco states it was just the result of miscommunication.
“They were indicting us based on total misinformation and lies,” she said, reading some of the emails aloud. Many of the senders included former alumni who expressed shame and disappointment. “I don’t know what the expectation was because they never shared it. We have a very active student government, I mean the student government president is black. I don’t know what the expectation is.”
She’s not the only one who wants to include more students’ voices moving forward. Organizers said they’d like to incorporate students voices more as well. Parents, community members and other voices are also sought; the idea being that less of it will fall on teachers and it’ll become more collaborative.
A community discussion is planned for March 11. Parents and students are particularly invited because organizers are hoping to diversify their voice moving forward.
“I think that any, and all people in all school across Monroe county and beyond need to take on this initiative. The district has…we have these organizations that it’s their job to educate children already. So rather than us starting our own organization and things we wanted to leverage these powerful organizations already.”
“Anytime you do anything the first time there are bound to be issues.”