Streamers spiraled across bleachers in the gym at Carver High School of Engineering and Science, and balloons formed an archway at the door, but the construction-paper hearts were the clearest sign that this would be a different kind of Valentine’s Day.
Dangling from ribbons attached to the ceiling, the hearts served as background for the photos of famous African Americans pasted on them. Images of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Madame C.J. Walker and other historic figures swayed in the air as students walked beneath them.
The decorations set the stage for a special assembly at the North Philadelphia school, a student-produced celebration that showcased love for the black community – its history, political activism and cultural arts.
The Black History Month program was only the second event in a new initiative meant not only to promote student involvement in the month-long observance, but also offer an outlet for artistic expression in a school focused on STEM education.
During a nearly 90-minute assembly, more than 40 students performed music, dances and poetry tied to the theme of black history.
“I feel like the whole assembly showed a lot of things that you wouldn’t normally see in school . . .” said senior Benjamin Ahanonu, 17. “Students get to express themselves in a way that they usually can’t in the classroom,” he said.
Ahanonu was part of a group of six students who suggested the Black History Month program to school officials after the classmates participated in the National School Walkout, a March 2018 protest against gun violence, following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018.
The demonstration left the students feeling empowered,” said Kit Bradley, an English teacher at the school.
“They felt ‘Oh, I can give my voice to this and do something because I saw all these other students’ voices and actions in their community,’” Bradley said.
The combination of black history themes with individual creative expression helped students to use art as a way of commenting on social issues, said Christina Puntel, an English teacher.
But for student Zaahid Kennedy, the assembly offered something else – a chance to have fun.
“Throughout the year, we’re pushing ourselves academically, and physically, through sports,” said Kennedy, 17. “This time, we could just express and show artistic creativity in front of the entire school. It was a great time,” he said.
Students had long wanted a Black history program, said Alisha Wellington and Tamera Stanley two former students who were instrumental in organizing the first assembly before they graduated in 2018.
“In the past, it was quite hard to find someone to support any kind of black history event,” said Wellington, 19. “I found often adults and even sometimes students never had time or just didn’t have the enthusiasm to put forth the effort.”
Without a black history program in a 900-student school named after a trailblazing African American scientist (George Washington Carver), “it was if we didn’t celebrate our identity,” said Stanley, 19.
But now, students not only celebrate it, but also lead the planning and production of the program.
“This black history assembly will continue to help African American students find the beauty in understanding our struggles,” Wellington said, and that understanding will “fuel and mold our future success.”