How one school district is integrating black history beyond one month

  • Traci O'Neal Ellis

    Traci O'Neal Ellis

  • Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin is working with Elgin Area School District U-46 to extend lessons typically limited to Black History Month beyond just February.

    Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin is working with Elgin Area School District U-46 to extend lessons typically limited to Black History Month beyond just February. BRIAN HILL | Staff Photographer

Posted2/8/2016 5:35 AM

Black history typically gets noticed in public schools once a year -- every February -- as educators highlight prominent African-Americans and their role in shaping the American narrative.

Leaders at Illinois' second-largest school district say that's just not enough and are changing how black history is taught in today's classrooms.


"It is somewhat amazing and insulting that our history is relegated to a month," said Traci O'Neal Ellis, an Elgin Area School District U-46 school board member. "Black history is segregated from U.S. history in our K-12 public school systems."

Beyond teaching about the "usual suspects" -- such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X (aka el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz), Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman -- schools rarely go deeper into true black history, she added.

"People of color have a rich, sometimes very uncomfortable, and at times painful history in this country. But we as people of color have contributed deeply to make this country better, and our history deserves to be taught completely, and accurately," Ellis said.

To that end, Ellis looks forward to the day when black history is taught just as history and is more integrated into public schools' curriculum.

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U-46 is partnering with Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin to do just that.

District administrators and the library's media specialists have been working to identify African-American literature, writers, researchers, scientists, sociologists and various genres of nonfiction works to align with the kindergarten- through fifth-grade curriculum and Common Core state standards for language arts, social studies and science.

"Previously, we saw a great variation in how black history was included within our curriculum throughout our 57 sites," said Suzanne Johnson, U-46 assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. "Unfortunately, it was highlighted at this time of year, and it was not an inclusive approach ... so it's a tremendous shift. That is the goal to make sure that it is integrated throughout our curriculum and all of our resources, throughout the entire school year."

U-46 elementary teachers received training last fall on incorporating diverse resources and materials into their classroom curriculum. Another training is scheduled March 15 at Gail Borden.

Eventually, the goal is to expand the project beyond the district's 42 elementary schools and roll out similar resources for its eight middle schools and five high schools.


"We have a lot of work to do ... next school year there will be much more integration," Johnson said. "It is an exciting opportunity. The diversity of the texts that we have available through this resource is just so amazing and overwhelming ... the feedback from the teachers is, 'What took you so long?'"

Librarians have created a spreadsheet listing books, and their appropriate grade level, by African-American writers on topics related to black culture, history and other subjects, or with black characters. Such books are available to teachers, parents, and school librarians to supplement and enrich the elementary school curriculum. Books are identified by library volunteers, which include retired teachers, librarians, school administrators and educators.

The database is available online at

Children relate better to literature when they see themselves and others in the characters, officials say.

"Throughout the year that (spreadsheet) can be used to provide that window, that mirror, that door with the hope that the entire community walks through that door through that book for a better understanding of their world," said Tish Calhamer, Gail Borden readers services and civic engagement librarian.

Eventually, officials hope to create similar spreadsheets for Latinos, Asians, and other groups, and build a multicultural supplement database for all grade levels on a searchable online platform.

"We need to get to the point where there is no Black History Month, there is no St. Patrick's Day, there is no Asian-American Awareness Month," Calhamer said, "it needs to be every day that we are aware of our fellow human beings."


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