A poster at Cale Elementary designed to educate students about slavery “missed its mark,” Albemarle County schools Superintendent Matt Haas said in a statement Wednesday, after the division ordered it taken down last week.
The poster, written on yellow, laminated paper, read: “Dear Students, they didn’t steal slaves. They stole scientists, doctors, architects, teachers, entrepreneurs, astronomers, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, etc. and made them slaves. Sincerely, your ancestors.”
Haas said that the poster, which was put up for Black History Month, disrupted the school and “spawned destructive confrontations between students who obviously lacked the mature perspective to understand the intent of the message.”
“It became clear that in order for the poster’s message to educate and inspire, we educators needed to provide some age-appropriate context and facilitate thoughtful, cooperative conversations with students,” he wrote. “Essentially, the poster by itself, without a supplemental and common lesson, missed its mark.”
Parents and community groups have criticized the decision to take the poster down, and Haas noted in his statement that he’s received numerous emails offering different responses to the issue.
“Don’t claim to be an anti-racist school system that uses Culturally Responsive Teaching and wants to promote critical thought and then crumble the minute things get difficult,” wrote Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County on social media.
Haas commented Feb. 13 on a Schilling Show blog post titled “Fomenting dissension at Cale Elementary” that included a photo of the poster to say it was being removed.
The school displayed the poster outside the main office, but Principal Cyndi Wells didn’t know about it or approve it ahead of time, a division spokesman said.
The same poster was displayed in the school last year. Then-principal Dee Dee Jones left at the end of the school year to join the division’s alternative learning program.
Katie Morgans, a first-grade teacher at Cale, said that Haas commented on the Schilling Show site before teachers were told about the decision to remove the poster.
“We were shocked that it was coming down,” she said, adding that other teachers were using the poster in their class as a teaching tool and discussing the general themes. “It’s trying to humanize people who were enslaved.”
The Hate-Free Schools Coalition questioned why the poster was removed and asked which specific Albemarle County schools values it goes against. The group also encouraged concerned community members to reach out to the School Board and Haas for answers.
“This poster is an opportunity for the school to continue the discussion, not shut it down,” the group wrote on Facebook. “When students have a problem with facts, you change the students not the facts.”
This school year, Albemarle County social studies teachers began a years-long effort to rewrite the school system’s history curricula to better address the legacies of racism, slavery and inequity. The effort will inform history lessons at the middle and high level but could affect elementary students in the future, officials said.
The poster mimics a widely-shared classroom door created last February by a sixth-grade math teacher in Mississippi.
“The words from that middle school classroom door poignantly and candidly emphasize the atrocity of the institution of slavery and its ravagement of human potential,” Haas wrote in the statement. “It is as factual as it is emotional. As public school educators, we need to be thoughtful about our handling of such topics, especially with our youngest and most impressionable students.”
On Twitter, the coalition disagreed that the poster was not appropriate for younger kids.
“Even kindergarteners can understand the message behind this poster if it was EXPLAINED TO THEM in a developmentally appropriate way … you know, your job,” it wrote.
In the statement, Haas said that Bernard Hairston, the division’s assistant superintendent for school community empowerment, is working with the school’s administrative team and their Black History Month Committee “to evaluate the poster, assess the situation and determine next steps.”
“Among their goals are uncovering misunderstandings and misconceptions, considering all perspectives, and leveraging culturally responsive teaching and experiences to benefit students, the school and the community as a whole,” he wrote.