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Pittsford Central School District defends response to botched Black History Month project

This poster is meant to depict Johnson Powell, who received a patent for an eye protector in 1880. Instead, it shows former President Andrew Johnson.
Credit Dr. Jerome Jean-Gilles
This poster is meant to depict Johnson Powell, who received a patent for an eye protector in 1880. Instead, it shows former President Andrew Johnson.

The Pittsford Central School District is defending its handling of a Black History Month project that went wrong. WXXI News reached out to the district after a Pittsford parent noticed what he called egregious errors in an elementary school project intended to honor African American inventors.

Dr. Jerome Jean-Gilles was picking up his children from their school when he noticed dozens of posters lining the main hallway.

“They told me the theme of the project was to celebrate a hundred black inventors,” Jean-Gilles said.

But as he walked the hallway, he saw numerous posters with incorrect information. Some had the wrong year or wrong title. Then he saw a string of posters with the names of black inventors, but pictures of white men.

“To my shock and dismay, there were many displays in that short segment of the wall that showed just egregious errors, where it had a clear picture of a Caucasian associated with this name, and an invention, which was blatantly wrong. It was just shocking,” Jean-Gilles said.

One of the posters had the name Powell Johnson, inventor of protective eyewear. But the picture was of Andrew Johnson, who as President of the United States, failed to address racial issues and civil rights after the Civil War. Historians describe Johnson as a racist who routinely referred to African Americans as inferior and undeserving of equal rights.

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“The idea that this predominantly Caucasian class can walk out thinking that Andrew Johnson – a picture of Andrew Johnson – somehow should be affiliated with Black History Month in a positive perspective? It’s just not acceptable,” Jean-Gilles said.

The district confirms that this was a fifth grade class project, and the images of white people getting credit for black inventions had stayed up in that hallway for several weeks. No one on the school staff had noticed the errors.

“The objective was a real positive one,” Pittsford Superintendent Mike Pero said. “Because the project was ungraded, [the teacher] did not check every one. And so I think that’s where the issue occurred.”

Jean-Gilles met with the district and said he didn’t want anyone fired or disciplined, but he did want the school to get this right.

“Mistakes happen, and actually in life, one of our major learning tools is actually learning from our mistakes,” he said. “And certainly, we need to help guide these students better and correct this mistake.”

Superintendent Pero replied that Pittsford is a district where all students should feel comfortable.

“We need to own it, and we need to make sure that it’s not repeated,” he stated. “The second it was brought to our attention, we had members from the district office over, taking a look at it with the principal and rolling up our sleeves and then working with staff to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

But Pero said the issue was handled, the project would not be revisited, and the information on the posters would not be corrected. He says he worried that the issue was becoming too political, and teachers would be afraid to teach this material in the future.

“What we don’t want is for our staff to ever feel defensive or they’re on their heels or they’re going to be publicly shamed for doing something that has good intentions,” he said.

Jean-Gilles says if the school had botched a math lesson, they would have corrected the error. Why not Black History?

“I was shocked that a month has transpired – knowing the gravity of this mistake, and the sensitivity of this mistake – that they didn’t even address this to the students,” Jean-Gilles said.  “I mean, what’s the point of the school? If you’re not educating the students, what’s the point?”

Kevin Beckford, a  member of the Pittsford Town Council and parent of a student in the district agrees with Jean-Gilles.

“The points of failure were huge,” he said. “I give a complete pass to the kids that may have missed this because they’re still learning.”

Beckford says this is about representation. A 2016 WXXI News investigation found that out of more than out of 481 teachers in the entire Pittsford School District, only one was African American. 478 were white. The district has not provided updated numbers. The white teachers accounted for 99.4 percent of the staff; white students account for 78 percent of Pittsford students. If African American students were represented proportionally on Pittsford teaching staffs, the district would need to hire an additional 14 black teachers.

The Pittsford school district is not unique in this regard; no suburban district in the Rochester region employs enough African American teachers to match the student population, proportionally.

“You do have to ask, how did they pick a white person’s picture for a Black History project, and then how did the teacher miss it?" Beckford said. "And so, to me, that’s a powerful example of, okay, let’s unpack that to figure out, you know something, maybe there should be a greater sense of urgency in diversifying the workforce. Because our kids, if they’re in the fifth grade and that happened, what’s happening when they leave the twelfth grade?” 

WXXI News asked Superintendent Pero if the incident could have been avoided if there were more diversity in the district’s teaching staff.  

“No. I don’t think diversity in the teaching staff had anything to do with this incident,” he said.

In addition to the Black History Month issue, Pittsford is grappling with an incident that occurred between two high school students. Parents tell WXXI News it involved a white girl making racist remarks to a black female student. Pero confirmed that such an incident happened.

“We have students like, I think, everywhere else, that have done and said something that was wrong and racist and hurtful. And we need to educate and remedy and make sure that doesn’t repeat itself,” he said.

Some parents have called for a public forum on race in the district. Pero says that would not be constructive at this moment, but the district has a new Inclusivity Advisory Committee that is working to help all students and families feel comfortable.

Evan Dawson is the host of "Connections with Evan Dawson." He joined WXXI in January 2014 after working at 13WHAM-TV, where he served as morning news anchor. He was hired as a reporter for 13WHAM-TV in 2003 before being promoted to anchor in 2007.
Megan Mack is the executive producer of "Connections with Evan Dawson" and live/televised engagement programming.