CHARLES TOWN – A Chicago marketer’s nationwide online call to action to pressure Jefferson County school officials to start a temporarily suspended summer math course geared to interest black children amounts to “unscrupulous tactics,” according to school board member Donna Joy.
Joy criticized the Facebook appeal by Freddie Taylor, the person hired to promote the Black Math Genius Program that the school system has paid $63,280 to offer during an expanded free summer school program that started last week.
Joy said Taylor’s message is highly counterproductive as school officials struggle to address citizens’ race-related questions and concerns about the math program.
“Whoever is responsible for marketing [the Black Math Genius] program is using unscrupulous tactics that I, as a board member, do not condone,” Joy said after reviewing Taylor’s message posted on June 2. “It’s causing a whole big uproar.”
Joy said she’s particularly offended that Taylor repeatedly mischaracterized Jefferson’s enrollment consisting of 95 percent black students.
About 6 percent of the school district’s students are black, according to enrollment figures reported to the West Virginia Department of Education. About 16 percent of the district’s students are identified as “multiracial.”
“I resent the fact that someone would blatantly lie to the country about the number of black children in the county just to create an uproar,” said Joy, who worked as a math teacher at Jefferson High School before she was elected to the school board last year.
Over the past two months, Joy, the mother of three children of color, has criticized school administrators for repeatedly failing to clearly demonstrate both to school board members and the public what the Black Math Genius Program would and would not teach students.
Joy agrees that there are racial issues that the school system needs to address, but she said the public skepticism arising over the Black Math Genius Program stems from insufficient transparency in explaining the program and trying to implement shortcuts to avoid school board review and oversight.
“When procedures are not followed, then that raises questions, which is how all this came about in the first place,” Joy said. “I haven’t been able to ask questions and get them answered. … I’ve asked at least 50 questions and they haven’t been answered about the program.”
Joy said she has witnessed subtle racism routinely occurring in the school system where teachers and school administrators steer black and other minority students away from higher-level courses. Those same teachers and administrators had directed white students who were no more prepared or gifted toward those same courses, she said.
“I definitely agree there are racial issues,” she added. “These are different issues. That’s not going to change the racial issues—this program will not change it.”
Joy has a doctorate degree in teaching mathematics.
Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bondy Shay Gibson and the Black Math Genius’ creator, former Michigan math teacher and principal Assata Moore, have said the program highlights the long history of black individuals and black cultures in developing and advancing the knowledge of mathematics.
Moore said the contributions of blacks in mathematics are just a framework for her program, which she said primarily offers lessons creatively designed to spur students’ confidence and interest in math. Any student of any race or math skill level can benefit from her program, she said.
Her program offers no race-related blame or excuse for students not to excel in math, Moore said.
Gibson withdrew the math program from the ongoing summer school activities that were expanded to help students sharpen their academic skills in the wake of the disruptions the pandemic has caused. School administrators said the Black Math Genius Program will resume after a series of public discussions take place to address citizens’ questions and concerns.
Worries or complaints that only black students could participate in the math program were misguided and wrong, Gibson and Moore both said.
More than 700 students are attending the various summer school programs, and 57 students had signed up to participate in the Black Math Genius course, according to school officials.
In spontaneous remarks in a Facebook video message, Taylor asked a nationwide audience that appears to be primarily black to telephone the county school system to urge school officials to start the Black Math Genius Program. Much of his comments were directed toward two white Jefferson women who spoke out against the program as backsliding toward reverse segregation.
“It’s really because you got a white curriculum that you’re teaching to black people and it doesn’t bring out their interests,” Taylor said. “Math is the blackest thing ever because it originated from our people, right? We discovered mathematics on this planet. And that’s a key fact when you’re trying to connect our young people to mathematics and the importance of it.”
“If we want better, we gotta do better,” he continued. “And I think it starts with supporting Jefferson County school board, the students that are in that area, right? Like, if all of us, if the entire nation is calling Jefferson County. Imagine what’s going to happen in Chicago when they pulled this same mess. Imagine what’s going to happen in Atlanta. … What’s gonna happen in the Bronx, right, if the whole country is standing up and supporting our children, right?”
Reached by phone Monday, Moore said she wasn’t aware of Freddie Taylor’s video message three weeks ago encouraging people to contact Jefferson County Schools. “I don’t keep up with it that much,” she said. “I’ve been traveling and doing other things. I’m not surprised by it and understand his thinking and his point of view.”
Moore said she would correct any confusion and mischaracterization Taylor made about the racial makeup of Jefferson County Schools’ student population. While visiting Jefferson County last week, she said the county’s predominantly white population undoubtedly contributed to misunderstandings about her math program.
She and county school officials also have acknowledged the program could have been explained better from the outset to avoid at least some of the current controversy.
“I doubt anyone has purchased it and looked through the material,” she said. “And we don’t fundamentally understand that it’s important for children to see themselves in their learning. That is a problem.”
Moore said Taylor’s efforts to defend and support the Black Math Genius Program was an appropriate response to critical and inaccurate comments made by Jefferson County citizens and groups on national social media platforms.
Moore also said she agrees with Taylor’s general viewpoint that racism within school systems routinely harms the learning and academic performance of black students. Those views are personal experiences that motivated her to create the Black Math Genius Program, but her views don’t come into play with the instruction her program offers, she said.
But Moore said she’s most concerned that the needs of students to become more skilled at math are getting lost in the debate about the Black Math Genius program.
“I’m not hearing anyone address the problem with the students,” she said. “We’re asking about Freddie. We’re asking about other people speaking out. But no one is saying here’s the solution for 75 percent of those black students who are not performing well. We’re not having that discussion. … The children are being missed.”