Saga continues to inspire study of black history

Growing number, diversity of school teams competing in bowl pleases its creator

March 21, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Wearing identical "Girl Power" T-shirts on the stage at the University of Maryland, College Park's student union, fourth-graders Haley Loveridge, Laura Thompson and Destinee Young put their heads together. They wrote out the names of Civil War nurse Susie King Taylor, blood-bank creator Charles Drew and open-heart surgery pioneer Daniel Hale Williams.

A few minutes later, the students from Mayo Elementary School in Anne Arundel County were celebrating. Their correct identification of the photographs of three famous African-Americans in medicine had made them elementary-school champions of the state Black Saga Competition.

The annual competition is the brainchild of Charles M. Christian, a social geography professor at the university who wanted to expand schools' attention to black history beyond the month of February.

Since Christian started the competition at Beltsville Academic Center in Prince George's County 12 years ago, participation has grown. Teams from 48 schools came to yesterday's finals, up from about 30 that competed in 2001.

"What was, I think, important today is more diversity," Christian said yesterday. "It's almost as if those schools that are white are beginning to understand they need to understand the African-American experience."

With teams from 12 elementary and three middle schools at the finals, Baltimore County had many students participating for the first time. The school system has made Black Saga instruction a priority this year. The members of Mayo's winning team were white, from a school that has few minority students.

"It's a positive indication that within the instructional program, schools are integrating African-American history," said Shirley Harrison-Jenkins, principal of Phyllis E. Williams Academic Center in Prince George's County. "It's not just a sidebar any longer."

More schools will soon have that history woven into their instruction. Christian has coordinated the writing of an African-American history curriculum for state public schools that will debut in classrooms during the next few months. The curriculum, for grades four through eight, will be tied to the exhibits of the new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture being built in Baltimore.

A team from Redland Middle School in Montgomery County won the middle-school competition, with Howard County's Patuxent Valley Middle School taking second place. Beltsville Academic Center was runner-up to Mayo in the elementary-school contest.

At Mayo, contest coordinator Gloria Hesseloff said she trained her Black Saga teams to "visualize themselves succeeding," and had black history facts recited along with school announcements.

But Hesseloff gave most of the credit to parents like Lori and Frank Loveridge, who worked with their daughter Haley on the subject for an hour most nights for months - even when, in the last week, Haley developed pneumonia.

Frank Loveridge said he benefited from the study sessions, too. "I think I learned a lot more about African-American history from studying with her," said Loveridge, who works in federal law enforcement.

Laura Thompson, Haley's teammate, said she worked hard for the contest because her mother had promised that she could have a bird if she won. In addition to a trophy, members of the two winning teams received $300 each.

Yesterday, Laura was trying to decide whether she should choose a parakeet or a canary.

But even those who didn't fare so well were happy they had participated.

Brooke-Logann Williams, a fifth-grader at Powhatan Elementary School in Woodlawn, was proud that her team knew the name of Frederick McKinley Jones, who invented automatic truck refrigeration. In their preliminary round, she said, "we were the only ones that got it."

Though his son, David Jr., was depressed at the performance of his team from Battle Grove Elementary in Dundalk, David Ayres Sr. thought the experience worthwhile.

"It's where they learn more about American history, not just part of it," said the Dundalk truck driver. "I think it's a good thing."

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