More than a month-long event

Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School integrates Black history into its coursework.


Students and staff paid attention during the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School morning meeting, a gathering to prepare for the day, last Friday as first grade teaching assistant Jo-Ann Taylor shared the life and contributions of Marie Allen, a friend and Oak Bluffs resident who passed away earlier this month. Taylor shared with those present Allen’s lifetime in public service and accomplishments as president of the Martha’s Vineyard branch of the NAACP. 

“She’s no longer with us, and sometimes our hearts hurt because we lose people who were very close to us that were a part of our everyday life,” Taylor said. “But, for somebody like Marie … because she’s left this life, we now remember this really good, good person, a bright light. And, all that I can say is that I still want to be like her when I grow up, and I’m 67.” 

Her comments were part of the school’s celebration of Black History Month. Students and staff signed up to share about someone important to them and to Black history throughout February. Some added images and blurbs on a white board collage that people could read while walking down the school’s hallway or waiting in line for lunch. The board showcased various people, like abolitionist Harriet Tubman, civil rights leader Bob Moses, author Zora Neale Hurston, among others. The board also had culturally important information, such as the popular Marvel superhero Black Panther and the Black Panther Party community survival programs. 

However, the Charter School makes sure Black history month doesn’t stay as a “token” month. Black history is integrated into the school’s social studies and history classes. Charter School diversity, equity, and inclusion co-coordinator Mathea Morais said this helps the school community to think about Black history beyond February. The morning meeting presentations for Black History Month started with an invitation to teachers to choose a day to talk about a person of their choice. 

“Morning meeting really feels like a good time,” Morais said. “It’s when the whole community is together. It’s when we have K through 12 students, so we’re thinking about different learners and different age groups and how to share stories that are important and can impact every member of our community.” 

According to Morais, this allowed students to open up about historical people they were interested in, what they learned in the classroom, or to share a personal story. “It made it less about who Freedom (Charter School diversity, equity, and inclusion co-coordinator Freedom Cartwright) and I thought were important but really made it about who the community thought was important,” she said. 

Charter School director Peter Steedman attested to how the students were active participants in the activity. “When we highlighted the efforts of Harriet Tubman, one student stood up and off the top of his head was able to recite a really interesting history of what Harriet Tubman had done,” he said. “It’s great that we’re able to weave this into the fabric of the morning meeting and give a natural time for reflection about the contributions of African Americans to our own American history and the world at large.” 

The morning meeting presentations were just one of the various ways the Charter School instills a consciousness about race in the school community, such as Kyle Williams, chief empowerment officer of the anti-racism activation experience A Long Talk, providing anti-racism training for school staff and high school seniors. The multi-pronged approach, particularly different learning styles for students, also supports transmitting this information. “Rather than having it be something that they abstractly understand as something that happened a long time ago, they have a way to understand how they can participate in eradicating [racism] now,” Morais said. 

Morais said Martha’s Vineyard wonderfully celebrated the progress made for the Island’s Black community while discussing the painful past and what hardships continue. 

“There’s no part of this country that doesn’t have some aspect of Black history,” Morais said. “There’s just places where it’s talked about and where it’s not … and there’s places where there are communities that are lifting that history up and there are places where there are communities that are trying to shut that down.” 

The Charter School’s programming provided a “common framework” for its community to be anti-racist, according to Steedman. “When we highlight Black History Month, it’s a part of the fabric of who we are as a school,” he said. “It helps the students, it helps our teachers but also … we hope it impacts the larger community as well as the students leave us.” 

Black History Month isn’t the only month to receive this integrative treatment. Morais said histories of other groups are also a part of the coursework and she plans to connect them with activities during other observances, such as Women’s History Month in March, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, and National Hispanic Heritage Month in September. These approaches make sure all students are seen and gives students the tools to better understand people from different backgrounds and cultures.

“Those months are important, it’s just that can’t be the only time you’re learning about people,” Morais said. “That’s when you’re celebrating people, putting extra time and thought and effort into celebrating a culture, but that can’t be the only time you’re learning about a culture. You need to be learning about cultures all the time, and then that makes the celebration real. It makes it a celebration rather than a token, sort of performative thing.”