New York City students plan to rally outside the education department's headquarters on Thursday afternoon to demand that Black history be taught at all of the city’s public schools.
The protest organized by the New York City chapter of Black Lives Matter at School comes amid criticism of Mayor Eric Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks for backing away from a $200 million “culturally responsive” curriculum overhaul. The rally for more Black history instruction also comes as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis leads a Republican effort to limit instruction on racism and oppression.
“I only learn about Black history when it’s Black History Month,” said Dakarai Lindsay, a senior at A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in Harlem. “It needs to be supported more.”
The student protesters are also rallying for more Black teachers and the hiring of more mental health counselors instead of school safety agents. Black Lives Matter at School is organizing protests and making the same demands around the country as part of a week of action.
Interviews with educators and students revealed a wide variety of approaches to Black history at New York City schools, as well as criticism of the Adams administration for taking a “piecemeal” approach to a more diverse curriculum.
"Our administration is deeply tied to Black history and we are confident in the DOE’s roll out of these curriculums with a new approach to reflect the diversity of all New Yorkers. We will always appreciate our students exercising civic engagement and we are proud of their commitment to this issue. With every new administration comes a new way to do things and growing pains, but we are confident in Chancellor Banks’ vision to reform the current curriculum,” a City Hall spokesperson said.
A new approach to Black history and culturally responsive curriculum
Toward the end of his administration, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to invest more than $200 million in federal stimulus funds in the creation of new, more “culturally responsive” reading and math curricula for pre-K through 12th grade. De Blasio dubbed the initiative “Mosaic.”
As part of that plan, boxes of new books were sent to schools, including titles that focused on the history and culture of Black, Asian, Latino, Jewish and Indigenous communities, as well as immigrant experiences, gender, sexuality and neurodiversity, among others.
At the time, parents said they were told that was just the beginning of an overhaul that would extend to new lesson plans, more training for staff and an emphasis on accessibility for English language learners.
But after Adams took office, education department officials said there would be a new approach to the Mosaic curriculum.
Education department officials explained in a statement that the Mosaic plans were “not feasible” because they were too vague and limited the flexibility teachers have in how they deliver instruction.
Rather than a curriculum overhaul covering all grades and subjects, the Adams administration began rolling out specific social studies curricula around LGBTQ+ history and Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, history. The LGBTQ+ curriculum is now available to all schools, while the AAPI curriculum has been piloted at 12 schools, with expansion plans in the works.
School officials said the Black history curriculum is currently in development, and that they hope to add Latino history and others soon.
“While other states and school districts hide from history, New York City Public Schools is engaged in the largest culturally responsive push in the nation,” said education department spokesperson Jenna Lyle. “We are training and supporting our educators in culturally responsive practices and ensuring that all students in every grade and subject receive engaging, relevant and rigorous instruction that values and helps reaffirm their cultural identity.”
Lyle said there are more reforms coming to create an integrated curriculum that reflects the diversity in the nation’s largest school system.
The education department is spending $150 million in federal stimulus money on culturally responsive curriculum, according to City Hall – $50 million less than de Blasio had pledged.
Some parents are accusing the Adams administration of scaling back ambitions for culturally inclusive curricula.
“Mosaic was supposed to be in every grade, every subject,“ said Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, a parent and a member of both the Black Lives Matter at School NYC steering committee and the Panel for Educational Policy. “They’ve kind of taken it piecemeal. We’ve got to bring this all together.”
Parent Tajh Sutton, a member of the Black Lives Matter at School NYC steering committee and the District 14 Community Education Council, said she expected more from Adams.
“To have a Black mayor come into office and scrap these things that Black, Latino, Asian, low-income, multilingual families have been fighting for for years, if not decades, really felt like a slap in the face,” she said.
Sutton pointed out that the $6.5 million contract for the new Black studies curriculum went to a partnership that includes the Eagle Academy Foundation and the United Way Foundation, which both have ties to the Adams administration.
Eagle Academy was founded by Banks before he was appointed chancellor. Sheena Wright, who is now deputy mayor, was CEO of United Way of New York City before she joined the Adams administration in December 2021.
The deal was initiated by the City Council before Adams took office, but was completed after he was sworn in, prompting Sutton to worry about “cronyism.” City Hall said Banks and Wright had no financial interests in the contracts.
An uneven landscape for Black history
While schools have a great deal of autonomy over coursework, parents, teachers and students said Black history offerings range.
“What I think is that most schools acknowledge Black History Month, and some schools do that well, and some schools do that in very problematic ways, and it even varies within the same school building,” said Sutton. “You have teachers who will go out of their way to supplement, to be responsive, to celebrate, to acknowledge, and you have teachers that if [it’s] not mandated, it's not happening.”
The education department noted that there are multiple online resources available to educators for Black History Month and Black history in general, including links to the 1619 Project, the Schomburg Center and more.
At Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan, Black History Month events include films during lunch; discussions about skin complexion, hair and racial slurs; performances; and a party.
Alake Sullivan, a member of the school’s Black Student Union, which helped organize the events, said the goal for Black History Month is to celebrate Black joy. She said the school does “a really good job” of incorporating Black history and ethnic studies into lessons throughout the rest of the year.
But Dakarai Lindsay, the senior at A. Philip Randolph High School in Harlem, said Black history has been “barely there” throughout her time as a student.
She said her social studies classes taught about slavery, but not the Harlem Renaissance or the Black Panthers. Lindsay said she was fortunate to attend after-school programs that introduced those topics.
“I love learning about my history and where I come from, but I should have known this from way, way back,” Lindsay said.