Black History Month Is a Time for Learning

Feb 7, 2014

Around 300 students packed the cafeteria at Syracuse’s Ed Smith K-8 School on Friday to hear two African-American public leaders share their paths to success.  

Cammie Nash, a seventh-grader at Ed Smith K-8 School in Syracuse, NY, asks district Superintendent Sharon Contreras a question about reaching success at the school's Black History Month panel on Friday, Jan. 7, 2014.
Credit Valerie Crowder, WAER News

As guests on the school's Black History Month panel, state Assemblyman Sam Roberts and the city school district's Superintendent Sharon Contreras answered student questions.  Aside from overcoming racial barriers, Contreras said, she has faced other challenges, including a physical disability.

 “I am nearly deaf.  I have severe, profound hearing loss,” Contreras said.  “And I had to make up in my mind that I wasn’t going to let that stop me from being a superintendent or from anything else I wanted in life.”

 As superintendent, Contreras said, she is now focused on the district’s problems.  For example, she describes something called de facto segregation in Syracuse city schools.

 “Because people of the same color generally live in the same neighborhoods and we have neighborhood schools, the schools are all of primarily one race and one culture,” Contreras said.  “What we have to do is make sure that neighborhoods are not segregated, so schools are not segregated.”

 Contreras is the first African-American woman to serve as superintendent in one of the state’s  Big 5 districts (New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers).  And she's the first woman to serve as a superintendent in the Syracuse City School District.  

An eighth-grader at Ed Smith K-8 School in Syracuse, NY dances as part of the school's 11th Annual African-American Professional Panel Discussion on Friday, Jan. 7, 2014.
Credit Valerie Crowder, WAER News
Contreras' words inspired seventh-grader Cammie Nash.  She's not African-American, Cammie said, but parts of black history have improved her life.

  “The people who are fighting for my rights for education and getting me the programs that I love to do and enjoy are people that have this history, that have come through struggles,” Cammie said.

 Cammie has attended Ed Smith school since she was in kindergarten.  Since then, Cammie said, she's seen the quality of education improve.  She points to the district’s Say Yes program as an example of public leaders helping expand educational opportunities for her and her classmates.  

  The 11th annual African-American Professional Panel Discussion at Ed Smith school also included student choral and dance performances.