Rod Watson, Buffalo News, January 29, 2020
At the Charter School of Inquiry just off the Kensington Expressway, a “founding fathers” artwork features prominent African Americans instead of Jefferson and Madison, a “periodic table” highlights the contributions of people of color, and a music teacher during a drumming session points out that drumlines originated at African American colleges and universities.
And it’s not even Black History Month yet.
That, in fact, is the whole idea behind infusion, the concept of incorporating the contributions of blacks as an integral part of the everyday curriculum, not as an add-on, so that black students see themselves in the inspiring contributions of others and white students also get a more thorough education.
It is one of the pillars of the Edison Avenue school, founded five years ago on the belief that students are more likely to be engaged in a curriculum if they find relevance in it – something white students have the luxury of taking for granted.
On paper, it makes perfect sense.
The only problem is that it’s not working yet on the papers that count for so much: New York State’s assessment tests.
As CSI awaits word on its charter renewal application, officials believe the school is poised for improved scores and are cautiously optimistic they will be given the chance.
“I feel like we’re just beginning to hit our stride,” said Helene Kramer, the former Buffalo School Board president and Read to Succeed executive director who helped found CSI, which was like “building a 747 while it’s in flight” given the challenges of finding a building, hiring staff and recruiting kids.
As the name implies, the school uses an inquiry-based model that builds on students’ natural curiosity, said John W. Sheffield, head of school since July 2018 and whose experience includes leading both the Elmwood Village and South Buffalo charter schools.
Sheffield found the “We the People …” artwork at the Juneteenth Festival. Students who pass it every day see not only the opening words of the Constitution’s preamble, but images of Thurgood Marshall, Colin Powell, Andrew Young and other blacks who’ve made significant contributions to this evolving nation. A Periodic Table of Black History on another wall lists everyone from Arthur Ashe and Ralph Ellison to A. Philip Randolph and Beyonce. Astronaut Mae Jemison is on another wall.
In fact, walking the halls is an immersion in black accomplishment that is a silent but potent message to the K-6 school’s 315 students, 86% of whom are black.
The children themselves also are on the walls. In one display, they draw themselves and fill in the blank “I like my ___”. The answers range from eyes to nose to hair, and it’s impossible not to recall the negative stereotypes long associated with such features on African Americans and the impact that had on generations of black children. CSI’s children should not have that problem.
In fact, the school has created an environment that should prove fertile for achievement. Yet only 17.3% of its students were proficient in English language arts last year and only 13.7% made the cut in math – figures below the Buffalo Public Schools averages.
With its infusion efforts, CSI is filling an obvious need in a culture still woefully ignorant of exactly how this nation was built. Some things need to be learned, even if they are not on a test.
But the bottom line is that kids also must be able to demonstrate proficiency in math and English.
CSI should be given more time to prove that those two goals are not incompatible.