Marching toward understanding Controversial teacher organizes black history events

Rocky Hill Middle School holds observance programs during after-school hours

Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2006

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
County teacher Denise Cherry went public with her belief that Black History Month lessons should not be taught in school.

Two weeks ago, a county school teacher wrote a controversial letter voicing her opinion that ‘‘excessive Black History Month activities” in area schools should be stopped.

A day after Denise Cherry’s letter was published in The Gazette, she led the first of four after-school programs she planned at Rocky Hill Middle School in Clarksburg to observe Black History Month.

Last Thursday afternoon, more than 60 Rocky Hill students gathered in the hallway after school. Students lined up holding signs made of yardsticks and construction paper that read ‘‘Equal Rights” and ‘‘Let Freedom Ring.”

The students were re-enacting the historic 1963 March on Washington. A rousing rendition of ‘‘We Shall Overcome” rang through the school building as the march ensued.

Letha Keith, a para-educator at Rocky Hill for the past 10 years, was one of the staff members supervising the mock march.

‘‘It gave them a taste of being part of an experience that they have only heard about,” Keith said. ‘‘I thought that the kids did real well with it and appreciated the circumstances around it.”

Cherry, a 20-year teaching veteran and an English teacher at Rocky Hill for two years, organized the program. She also wrote the Feb. 1 letter suggesting that celebrations of Black History Month and other similar observances for other cultures should be eliminated in county schools.

‘‘I beg you not to do this to our public school students. Our students of color need to know that they are not different. They do not deserve special treatment,” Cherry wrote in her letter.

There is no Montgomery County Public Schools curriculum requirement regarding Black History Month studies, spokesman Brian Edwards said. How and whether each school observes the month is left up to principals, he said.

At Rocky Hill, there have been no organized school assemblies, but there have been a few other programs to recognize Black History Month.

The Student Government Association is selling rainbow-colored diversity bracelets for $1. One of the bracelets reads ‘‘all spaces, all sizes, all colors, all special.”

The eighth-grade teachers also organized a classroom door-decorating contest in which portraits of many prominent African Americans are featured.

Cherry planned and organized a series of after-school programs on Thursday afternoons for the month of February. She volunteered to run the program and received the principal’s approval.

‘‘In the school system you have rigorous curriculum that covers specific things,” Cherry, an African American, said in an interview last week. ‘‘I wanted to put more emphasis on this Black History Month. I don’t think it can be done in five minutes of announcements. I wanted students to be motivated to learn and by coming they showed they’re motivated to learn.”

She said she was not surprised by the public’s response to her letter. A number of letters, both supportive and admonishing, have been written and published in the newspaper.

Rocky Hill Principal Stephen Whiting said he saw the letter that Cherry wrote before it appeared in The Gazette.

‘‘That is her writing as a private citizen,” Whiting said. ‘‘She has always had that view and she decided to put it in the paper. That is her opinion and I respect that.”

Whiting went on to say that he believes Cherry’s after-school programs — which she proposed — have done a good job of educating the students about black history.

‘‘It is another opportunity for the kids,” Whiting said. ‘‘We have a group that wants to stay after school. We thought that this was a good compliment to the other activities.”

During Thursday’s program, students sat at desks in Cherry’s classroom while James Brown music played in the background.

On each desk was a card featuring an African American who has contributed to American society. The students walked up to a microphone one-by-one to read the information on their cards. George Washington Carver and Madame C.J. Walker were among the influential figures the students read about.

‘‘I learned that a whole lot of people in the past made things that they don’t get credit for,” said Senaira Brown, a 13-year-old eighth-grader.

Later in the program, Cherry talked from her own personal experience about the struggles of integration she faced as a 13-year-old girl bused to an all-white school in North Carolina.

‘‘Almost every African American in this school should have been in that classroom because it is right for them to know about their history,” Brown said after listening to her teacher’s story. ‘‘It is right for them to know how they are able to go to school standing side-by-side with a white person or a Spanish person.”

Cherry also talked about going to middle school during the early era of integration and there was no mention of the accomplishments of black Americans in her history books. But she says now black history is taught hand-in-hand with American history.

‘‘You have other cultures who could benefit form more exposure to their struggles,” Cherry said. ‘‘We don’t do this for more cultures. Every black person in this county doesn’t have ancestors that were slaves.”

As for her colleagues, Cherry said she has received only positive feedback from the other teachers at Rocky Hill.

‘‘Teachers know [black] history is included in the curriculum,” Cherry said. ‘‘Their response is the same as mine.”

Giovanna Edouard, a 12-year-old sixth-grader from Clarksburg, was happy to see so many of her fellow students at the after-school program. She said there was a significant increase in participation from the opening program on Feb. 2.

‘‘Last time I think six people came,” Edouard said.

At the end of Thursday’s session, Cherry gave a brief overview of African American history. She talked about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the creation of the Black Panthers, the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police, and the creation of affirmative action.

The students also sang gospel music using a karaoke machine.

Karen Kiernan, also a para-educator at Rocky Hill, thought that Cherry gave an excellent presentation and said she attended the session to support Cherry.

‘‘You can’t live in the past, but the past is part of our future,” Kiernan said. ‘‘Each day builds on the next and I hope that our society can learn from the past.”