Instead of heading to their first-period class right after breakfast, students at the AmPark Neighborhood School (P.S. 344) in Van Cortlandt Village began their day with a song on Feb. 8.
Accompanied by teacher Josh Joffee on the guitar, students sang the Peter Seeger protest song “If You Missed Me at The Back of the Bus.”
“If you miss me at the back of the bus, you can’t find me nowhere, come on over to the front of the bus, I’ll be riding up there,” the students sang.
The tune kicked off the school’s celebration of Black History Month—a day filled with poetry and dance, and later read alouds and a presentation.
Fifth-graders took turns reading to a third-grade class from Robert Cole’s book The Story of Ruby Bridges, which tells the story of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, the first African-American student to attend all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Fifth-graders comprise the most senior students at the school, which serves 400 students from kindergarten through fifth grade.
The Press interviewed four of the fifth-graders.
“I felt that it was important we get together and… show how that people before us had stepped up and put their foot through the door for us to be able to be here right now,” said Ameera Louis-Jean.
“I saw the movie [about Ruby Bridges] and it inspired me, and I also read this book a long time ago, and I thought it would really be good to share with other children,” said Nia Bligen.
Nailah Gonzalez said she wanted to read the book to introduce third-graders to a Civil Rights Movement activist who might be unfamiliar to them.
“Instead of doing something that everybody would know about, not a lot of people know the story of Ruby Bridges,” Nailah said.
Charles Ampah said his favorite part of the read aloud was seeing all the third-graders follow along with the book and ask questions afterward.
“I wanted to show people what happened so people could be nicer and more considerate about their surroundings,” he said.
And the third graders were happy to have the older kids in their class.
Victor Roman said he liked the fifth graders coming to his class “because usually our teacher reads it or parents read.”
“It’s very exciting because they’re going to talk… with us and give us ideas and I really liked that,” he said.
“I think it was a very good book and I thought personally that the moral of the story is that everybody has to be treated equally no matter what race or color their skin is,” said Tomas Yafar.
His classmate Angelica Nunez agreed. “It could give us the experience of how Ruby Bridges felt and it shows us that a long time ago things weren’t allowed that are allowed now and it was wrong,” Angelica said.
Gabriella Lee said that she admired how brave Ruby Bridges was and thought the fifth graders were also brave for reading aloud. “They are really positive about going, performing and reading a book to our whole class,” Gabriella said.
Other guest readers at the school included AmPark parents and teachers.
Later in the day Marion Williams, the school’s chef coordinator, was to give a presentation to fifth-graders about scientist George Washington Carver. She said he inspires her because of his “strong connection to food and nutrition.”
Carver is credited with reinventing the farming industry through crop rotation, growing peanuts to nourish the soil and creating peanut byproducts from peanut oil such as shampoos, sugars and oils.
Kelly Lennon, AmPark’s assistant principal, said the idea of using a read aloud as part of Black History Month celebrations occurred to her when she learned the National Council for Teachers was holding read-in events in February.
“We decided that would be a perfect fit for AmPark and it would tie in literacy and be a nice celebration. Last year, we just had students doing poems and guest readers in classrooms. This year with the addition of Alvin Ailey and Josh does a lot of the protest songs…We thought that we would put them all together,” said Lennon.
Christine Milton, AmPark’s principal, said the poetry portion of the day complimented the school’s push in literacy. “The poetry is also really perfect because of our literacy program and the fact that many classes are about to announce a unit of study in poetry. So, this is a great way to immerse them and get them excited.”
Both said that the school includes and reading of all cultures as part of its educational curriculum. Through its music program, students had already been learned about protest songs from the Civil Right Movement and included them for the event.
According to Education Department data for the 2015-2016 school year, 49 percent of AmPark students met New York State standards on state exams for English and math. The compares to the district’s average of 26 percent in both English and math, and the city’s average of 39 percent in English and 40 percent in math.