DECATUR, Ga. (AP) — Every decision Assata Salim makes for her young son is important. Amid a rise in mass murder, safety issues were at the top of her mind when choosing a school. Next on her checklist was the culture of the school.
Salim and his 6-year-old son, Cho’Zen Waters, are black. In Georgia, where they live, public schools are prohibited from teaching divisive concepts, including the idea that one race is better than another or that states are fundamentally racist.
For Salim, the new rules mean public schools may not affirm Cho’Zen’s African roots, or accurately portray America’s history of racism. “I never want to put your education in the hands of someone who is trying to erase history or recreate narratives,” he said.
Instead, Cho’Zen attends a private Afrocentric school, joining children across the country whose families have adopted schools that affirm their black heritage, in a country where instruction on race is increasingly under attack. At Cho’Zen’s school, the Kilombo Cultural and Academic Institute in a suburb of Atlanta, photos of black historical figures hang on the walls. And every student and teacher identifies as black or biracial.
In recent years, conservative politicians across the country have advocated banning books or instructions that address race and inclusion. The books were banned in more than 5,000 schools in 32 states from June 2021 to June 2022, according to PEN America, a nonprofit organization that promotes free speech. Education bans have been enacted in at least 16 states since 2021.
Even when a topic is not explicitly prohibited, some teachers say the debates have steered them away from the controversy. The situation has caused more black families to drop out of public schools and opt for homeschooling or private schools that embrace their identity and culture. Public school enrollment of African-American students in pre-K through 12th grade has declined every year measured in federal data since 2007.
“I think it’s important to show those hard moments of slavery and segregation, but to tell the whole story,” said Salihah Hasan, an assistant professor at the Kilombo Institute. “Things have changed dramatically, but there are still people in this world who hate black people, who think we are still below them, and the youngest kids today don’t get it. But that’s why it’s important to talk about it.”
Kilombo goes further, focusing on the rich heritage of the students, both from Africa and from black America. “I want him to know that his existence does not start with slavery,” Salim said of his son.
The private K-8 school occupies the basement of Hillside Presbyterian Church on the outskirts of Decatur, an affluent, predominantly white suburb. Families pay tuition on a sliding scale, supplemented by donations.
The classrooms feature maps of Africa and brown paper figures wearing dashikis, a garment mostly worn in West Africa. In one class, students learn how sound travels by playing African drums.
The 18-year-old school has 53 students, up a third since the start of the pandemic. Initially, more parents chose the school because it returned to in-person learning before nearby public schools. Enrollment growth of late has reflected the increasing urgency of parents to find a school that doesn’t shy away from black history.
“This country is telling us that we have no place here,” said Mary Hooks, whose daughter attends Kilombo. “She also puts out a smoke signal to get people back home to places where we can get nourishment.”
Notably, the student body includes several children of public school teachers.
Simone Sills, a high school science teacher in Atlanta Public Schools, chose the school for her daughter in part because of its smaller size, along with factors like safety and curriculum. Plus, she said, she was looking for a school where “all students can feel grounded in who they are.”
Before 10-year-old Psalm Barreto enrolled in Kilombo, his family lived in Washington, DC. She said that she was one of the few black children at her school.
“I felt uncomfortable in public school because it was just me and another kid in my class, and we were sticking out,” she said.
Racial differences are apparent for babies as young as three months, research has shown, and racial bias shows up in preschool-age children. Kilombo offers a space for children to talk about their race.
“I am Blackity, Black, Black!” Robyn Jean, 9, said as she spun in circles. Her sister, 11-year-old Amelya, said her parents taught them about their Haitian-American heritage, knowledge she believes all children should have. “I want them to know who they are and where they come from, just like we do,” Amelya said. “But in some schools, they can’t.”
Last year, Georgia passed a bill known as the Protect Students First Act, which prohibits schools from promoting and teaching divisive concepts about race. Elsewhere, bills restricting or banning teaching on issues related to race and gender have been passed in states including Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee. In other states, like Arkansas, the restrictions have come through executive orders.
Advocates say the restrictions are aimed at eliminating classroom discussions that make students feel ashamed or guilty about their race and the history and actions of their ancestors.
The bills have had a chilling effect. A quarter of K-12 teachers in the US say these laws have influenced their choice of curriculum or instructional practices, according to a report by the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank.
At Kilombo, daily instruction includes conversations about race and culture. Founder Aminata Umoja uses a black puppet called a Swahili to welcome her students, ask how they are doing, and start the day with morals and values rooted in her African heritage.
The puppet might say: “’Let’s talk about iwa pele. What does that mean?’ and then one of the kids will tell us that it means good character,” said Umoja, who teaches kindergarten through second grade.
Teaching life skills and values, Umoja said, has its roots in freedom schools started during the Civil Rights Movement, in response to the inferior “sharecropper education” African-Americans were receiving in the South.
The school follows the Common Core academic standards for mathematics and language arts and uses the Georgia social studies standards to measure student success. But the curriculum is culturally relevant. It focuses on black people, with many figures excluded in traditional public schools, said Tashiya Umoja, co-director and math teacher at the school.
“We are giving children of color the same curriculum that white children receive. They can hear about their heroes, roe and ancestors,” she said.
The curriculum also focuses on the children’s African heritage. A math lesson, for example, might feature hieroglyphic numbers. Social studies courses discuss events in Africa or on other continents along with United States history.
When she was in public school, Psalm said she only learned about the major black figures in history, such as Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. Now, he said, he is learning about civil rights activist Ella Baker, journalist Ida B. Wells and pilot Bessie Coleman.
Said Psalm: “Honestly, I feel bad for kids who don’t know black history. It’s part of who we are.”
Data journalist Sharon Lurye contributed reporting from New Orleans.
The Associated Press educational team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.