Monday, February 26, 2001

Diversity not evident in many schools

Black History lessons fall on mostly white ears

By Lori Hayes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

English teacher Doris Riddle includes lessons about tolerance in her lectures at Norwood High School.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        As the only black teacher in a nearly all-white school, Doris Riddle spends a lot of time talking with her students about respect, tolerance and appreciation for individuals' differences.

        But as the Norwood High School English teacher looks out over a sea of white faces, she can't help but wonder whether her message gets through.

        “We talk about prejudice and what it means and how it stems from fear and ignorance,” Ms. Riddle said. “It matters even more in a setting where there is little diversity because they need the exposure.”

        Within the Tristate's mostly white classrooms, black history lessons can at times be met with confusion, ignorance and racism. While most students are receptive to the lessons, pockets of resistance remain.

Special section
        With Black History Month winding down, those history lessons often become lessons on racial tolerance as teachers strive to prepare students to transition from relatively homogenous communities to a more diverse society.

        “It's a tough teach,” said H. Jay Brewer, a history teacher at Ludlow High School, an all-white school in Kenton County. “It's far more difficult for our students to understand the extent of the struggle for equality because they don't deal with it on a regular basis.”

        Beyond a handful of urban districts, such as Cincinnati Public and Covington, the majority of Tristate schools are fairly white. Less than one-fourth of the 62 public school districts in Greater Cincinnati have student populations of more than 5 percent black.

        When it comes to teaching diversity, those demographics matter, teachers say.

        “It matters because we are preparing students to go beyond their communities,” Ms. Riddle said. “The more they are exposed to people who are different, the more equipped they are.”

        It's easy for students to develop stereotypes if they have no daily interaction with people of different races, said Michael Washington, director of Afro-American Studies at Northern Kentucky University.

        “The challenges that teachers face in the schools, whether they are diverse or not, are the challenges that America has faced historically,” he said. “It does matter if you're in a situation where you may not see any people of color in your school. It will be an abstraction.”

        But teachers' values are

        just as critical as the color of students, Mr. Washington said. Teachers have to create a classroom atmosphere that values all people.

        Although schools often emphasize historical figures during Black History Month, most school officials say black history is woven into their curriculum year-round.

        In January, Mr. Brewer's American history students studied the role of the black soldier in World War I. Now, they're discussing the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

        Ludlow makes efforts to bring in diverse speakers and provide students with multicultural experiences, but some students say more should be done.

        “People in Ludlow do not realize what it's really like out there,” said Tiffany Boles, 16, a Ludlow High junior.

        Ludlow junior Chris Rayborn, 16, said some of his peers could use more lessons on tolerance.

        “It should be mixed in with everything, not just one month,” he said. “There are people here who are racist, but they don't say it out loud.”

        Ms. Riddle said she is still asked on occasion, “Why are we studying this?” or “Why isn't there a white history month?”

        “The older the student, the more exposure they've had working with people who are different,” she said. “Some of the young ones bring their prejudices, but we talk about those things.”

        But those are good questions, NKU's Mr. Washington said. When students question the validity of black history lessons, teachers can provide a more inclusive understanding of their history.

        Because of the lack of diversity in her community, Sandra Rhein, an eighth-grade reading teacher at Campbell County Middle School, started teaching a unit on black history about 10 years ago.

        It wasn't embraced by everybody.

        One parent didn't want his daughter to research black leaders. A student brought a white Ku Klux Klan robe to class. And some teachers said the class wasn't relevant to the school's population.

        Another challenge was securing research materials. Few black history resources were available at the public libraries in Campbell County a decade ago, so she relied on the Internet.

        Today, Ms. Rhein still faces some resistance to the six-week unit that includes a daylong field trip to the African-American museum in Wilberforce, the Dayton home of renowned black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and two stops on the Underground Railroad. She too hears occasional questions about the value of the lessons.

        But she says most of her students - none of whom are black - are more understanding, even calling the lessons a favorite.

        And the library's resources have expanded, partly because of Ms. Rhein's requests for more materials.

        “These kids are more willing to accept the different cultures and races,” Ms. Rhein said. “The main objective is to teach tolerance of other races and cut down on any racial bias.”

        At Mason High School in Warren County, in a district that's about 94 percent white, students are going online to promote diversity.

        Eight students in a computer class designed a black history project for February for the school's Web site. The site - - includes a daily profile of a notable black American and student comments on their ideas for healing racism.

        “It's so important for us to understand what other people have gone through, to appreciate their struggles,” said Darla Watkins, a business technology teacher who teaches the Web class. “I hope the students have learned to open up and listen to everybody's stories, no matter what race they are.”

        Paul Gibson, 17, a Mason senior who worked on the project, was surprised by some of his peers' lack of sensitivity to cultural differences. It's mostly a product of ignorance, he said, but racism is a factor.

        “The whole goal (of the Web site) is to try to educate people,” he said. “It's opening eyes. It's just going to take some people being brave and stepping out of their comfort zone.”


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