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Palm Beach County educators discuss how to support students of color against backdrop of new laws

In this file photo, a group of seventh graders study after school in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood on February 9, 2021.
Matias J. Ocner / Miami Herald
In this file photo, a group of seventh graders study after school in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood on February 9, 2021.

Organizers say this year’s summit on African, African American and Caribbean studies in Palm Beach County public schools may be the most important yet. Dozens of teachers and academics are gathering this week for the annual district-sponsored conference, at a time when educators are facing new restrictions on how to teach about race and identity.

New state laws in Florida and across the country are targeting how public schools address topics like racism, discrimination, sexual orientation and gender identity, restrictions which some critics argue are unconstitutional.

Educators in Palm Beach County are coming together this week to talk about how to better support students of color, against the backdrop of Florida’s House Bill 7 and House Bill 1557 going into effect next week.

Brian Knowles directs the district’s office of African, African American, Latino, Holocaust, and Gender Studies.

“We’re making curriculum for grown people. Kids want to have those conversations. They come in the classroom with realities and want to talk about that stuff, right? But then our hands are tied,” Knowles said.

Speaking to an audience of about 60 educators at Palm Beach Lakes Community High School on Monday, Knowles said teachers have the power to transform communities of color for generations to come.

“We have the opportunity to break generational curses and cycles, right? We have the opportunity to shift the life trajectory of kids, shift future generations and change communities throughout Palm Beach County,” Knowles said. “Through authentic education where our children can see themselves and our culture is affirmed within our classrooms.”

But educators say that work of affirming children of color and teaching them their history is made more difficult by the district's efforts to implement the new legislation.

Teachers in Palm Beach County are being told to review all the books in their classroom libraries for references to racism, sexism and oppression.

Speaking at the summit, Palm Beach schools Superintendent Mike Burke said teachers need to create an affirming environment for all students, in spite of the new state laws. In his brief remarks, he did not reference the district's guidance on classroom libraries.

“Obviously this [state] legislation has had a very chilling effect on our district, our state. It just seems like it’s steeped in hatred and ignorance. And we can do better than that,” Burke said. “We should be OK really … if we stick to teaching the facts. We want children to think for themselves. And they kind of come to their own decisions and thoughts. I think we can do all that.”

School districts are struggling with how to comply. Educators say the legislation is in conflict with long-standing laws requiring schools to teach about African American and Hispanic history and the contributions women have made to society.

Palm Beach Lakes Principal David Alfonso says the new legislation won’t stop his school from teaching about African American, Latin American and Caribbean history.

“We will do what the state says. Because here’s the thing I want to remind you,” said Palm Beach Lakes Principal David Alfonso, “remember there is the law that says we must infuse African American history into our curriculum.”

“Sometimes the truth scares people,” Alfonso said. “And it does always … what? Set you free.”

The summit runs through Thursday June 23. More information about the conference is available here.

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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