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In schools across the country, notwithstanding nut allergies, peanuts overflowed this month as schoolchildren learned about George Washington Carver, a world-famous chemist who made important agricultural discoveries—and one of America’s celebrated Black History Month figures. It’s less likely that students studied Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells, or Fannie Lou Hamer, though. And that’s part of the difficulty with how Black History Month is observed in schools today.

In one corner, advocates of Black History Month argue that a special month is needed to celebrate and recognize the achievements of black Americans in a country where European history dominates historical discourse. In the other corner, critics cast doubt that Black History Month is still relevant with the gains made in race relations—a black U.S. president the most visible sign—and detractors charge it is detrimental in the long term to pigeonhole black history into a month-long observance. Somewhere caught in the middle are educators and schools.
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The problem lies not with specialized months to commemorate marginalized groups and communities, said Willis, but with schools that fail to incorporate the full range of diversity as part of their mission. “If there is a concerted effort to approach Black History Month in new ways each year, then we can combat some of the issues of only highlighting certain movements, figures, and events,” she said. Also, learning more about black women and LGBTQ individuals in her formative years would have put her more at ease identifying as a transgender woman.

“It shouldn’t have taken 20 years for me to learn about Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, and Marsha P. Johnson,” said Willis. “As well, I think it’s of the utmost importance to highlight the figures of today. We tend to only highlight contemporary celebrities and politicians, ignoring that we have activists and community organizers that are still making an impact on a daily basis.”

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Two new reports on school integration were published this month. “Socioeconomic School Integration has More Than Doubled and Millions of Students Stand to Benefit” was the headline on the press release. True. And. Efforts to make racially and socioeconomically diverse schools a reality have ultimately lagged. While more districts are rightly opting for diverse schools, others continue to face resistance. The promise of integrated schools is far from fulfilled.

“If you successfully bring these resources to high-poverty schools, it is possible to produce strong results for kids—and we know examples of excellent high-poverty schools that are doing that,” Potter said. “But these successful high-poverty schools are sadly still the outliers,” she stated, stressing that the majority of education reform strategies “focus on this long shot … rather than pursuing integration to break up the concentrations of poverty that we know are so harmful for kids.”

The most common method listed by districts to achieve this integration was redrawing neighborhood school boundaries, a controversial approach that is often accompanied by public outcry. But the researchers, while conceding the politically contentious nature of school-boundary decisions, admittedly offer scarce guidance to help school leaders that are considering changing attendance zones. Much of the pushback, like school segregation, cuts along racial and class lines. One illustration of the inherent challenges is seen in New York City, where parents on the Upper West Side and in the neighboring borough of Brooklyn opposed recent school boundary changes that would bring racial and socioeconomic integration.

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In December, just days before Christmas, an Idaho cafeteria worker was fired for giving a free hot lunch to a 12-year-old student who was hungry but didn’t have money to pay for her school meal. After the story went viral, the lunch lady was rehired. This story—along with several cases of schools tossing kids’ lunches for nonpayment—prompted me to take a closer look at how districts handle students who don’t have the money to pay for school breakfast and lunch.

A debate on school nutrition—trading pizza, fries, and cookies for whole grains, fruits and vegetables—has raged for years, while a parallel debate has gone somewhat unnoticed and unaddressed: What should be the consequence for children with delinquent school-meal accounts? While the most pressing issue in some school cafeterias is students tossing healthier school lunches in the trash, in others it is school employees dumping children’s lunches in the trash for nonpayment. And the result is hungry children, stunned parents, and increasing questions about how school districts handle overdue payments.

The notion of taking children’s lunches away and throwing them in the trash—in some cases, in front of the child and their peers—angers parents and exposes school officials to scorn. But behind the outrage lurks a larger issue. Survey data from the advocacy group School Nutrition Association shows that overdrawn lunch accounts create real financial challenges for school districts, forced to weigh mounting costs against unsatisfied students and families.

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(Photo: Berkeley Unified School District)