Teachers in the Salem-Keizer Afrocentric summer program serve a West African lunch of jollof rice, fried plantain and chicken to students on July 23, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Ayman Wamala learned about Harriet Tubman’s work leading enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad in his regular classes at school.

But Wamala, who will start seventh grade at Walker Middle School in the fall, said he had no idea until recently Tubman was also a spy for the Union Army and played an active role freeing slaves during the Civil War.

“I thought it was very interesting and I was kind of upset that we didn’t learn that at school,” Wamala said.

Wamala’s deeper understanding of Tubman’s role in American history came from the Afrocentric Summer Program, a six-week offering for Salem-Keizer School District students in third through eighth grade.

It’s among dozens of summer programs the district is offering this summer thanks to a significant expansion of state money aimed at helping kids succeed in school following a year and a half of mostly online classes during the Covid pandemic.

Reginald Richardson, president of the Salem-Keizer NAACP, proposed the program as a way to give the district’s Black students an academic boost by weaving African and African American history and culture into reading and math lessons and recreational activities.

Black students make up about 1% of the student body in Salem.

“Salem struggles with educating Black and brown kids,” Richardson said. He referenced state assessment data showing Black students in the district enter kindergarten scoring as well as or better than their white peers on early reading abilities, like recognizing letter shapes and sounds.

But within a few years, gaps emerge on state reading and math tests.

“By fourth grade, they’re behind,” Richardson said. Those gaps continue into high school, where Black Salem-Keizer students graduate at a much lower rate than their white and Latino counterparts.

Richardson is running the program through his nonprofit Community Learning Institute, taking vacation from his state job to do so.

The program was open to any student, regardless of race, but educators proactively recruited Black students.

Richardson’s goal was to create an environment where students were challenged academically while having their cultures and identities supported and affirmed by educators. 

He said that’s especially important after the year of online school, where many students, especially Black students, fell behind academically. Testing at the start of the Afrocentric program showed about half the students were below grade level for reading. Fewer students took a math assessment, but all who did were behind as well.

The program is staffed almost entirely by Black teachers, who account for just 1% of Salem-Keizer’s teaching workforce - about 20 people.

That was a selling point for teacher RJ Hampton, who normally teaches drone and robotics classes for high schoolers at the district’s Career Technical Education Center.

Hampton said too often, Black students have their culture portrayed in a negative light by white educators or are singled out for being the only Black kid in the room. That leads kids to disengage from school.

“The wheels have to turn in a different direction,” he said.

Efforts to remedy inequities in school often happen only after there are years of data showing there’s a problem, Hampton said. He said the Afrocentric program is challenging the norm by tackling the problem before waiting an entire school year to see how behind kids are.

“This is a huge effort to get a jump on some of the problems we can see coming down the pike,” he said.

Richardson’s proposal to the district was based on data showing teachers often have lower expectations for their Black students, which can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Research has repeatedly shown Black students perform better in school and are more likely to attend college when they have at least one Black teacher during their years in school.

“As a rule, children tend to live up-or down-to adult expectations, and it does not take very long for students to detect how much or how little is expected of them. Utilizing an Afrocentric perspective will consistently produce exemplary, high achieving students who have self-confidence, a strong sense of cultural identity, and a commitment to make positive contributions to their community and the world,” Richardson wrote.

The Afrocentric program runs five days per week, opening in the morning with daily affirmations, followed by reading and math lessons. A late July morning lesson was centered on Mae Jemison, an American engineer and astronaut who became the first Black woman in space in 1992.

In the afternoon, students play games and have cultural activities, like a lunch of West African staples like jollof rice and fried plantain prepared by a parent.

Field trips have also been a regular feature, with visits to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, and the Kroc Center.

Ace Hart, who will be in fourth grade at Candalaria Elementary School in the fall, said he’s enjoyed field trips and learning about racism and antiracism through readings in class.

“We’re learning a lot this summer,” he said.

Hart said he has friends at Candalaria, but has also had other kids refuse to play with him because of his skin color. The program has helped him better understand his experiences at school, he said, and learn how some of his friends have pushed back against racism by standing up for him.

“Antiracist means they love you for you,” he said.

Wamala said he was initially wary of signing up after his stepdad told him about the program, saying it sounded too much like summer school. But he found not having homework a plus.

At Walker, Wamala said he’s usually the only Black student in his classes. He said he often felt his teachers didn’t like him.

During the program, he said he’s made new friends from other schools.

“I actually feel more comfortable. I feel like I can say my opinion and not be afraid. I’ve gotten more confident,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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