‘Knowledge is what makes us strong’: Leopold Elementary celebrates black history as district grapples with race issues

MADISON, Wis. -At Leopold Elementary School’s annual black history celebration Tuesday, kindergartner Lariah Gibson was one of a handful of students receiving an award for “demonstrating independence in meeting our high standards in the classroom and school community.”

“She’s in Kindergarten and I think she encourages other students to do their best,” said her mother Stephany Gibson.

Art teacher Sonia Valle said no accomplishment is too small to recognize.

“We celebrate the smallest and that will make it expand into something great,” Valle said. “We want to make sure our children know knowledge is what makes us strong.”

The Madison Metropolitan School District has a Black Excellence initiative, working to find equitable solutions to issues such as the achievement gap. Black students are underrepresented in Advanced Placement classes and report feeling less of a sense of belonging and safety than their white counterparts.

“We have a very diverse school population so I feel like this is the one night where we all come together and celebrate and really try to highlight culture,” said Community Schools Resource Coordinator Rosie Gittens.

Gittens said positive community events can help overcome negativity.

“Our kids sometimes don’t see themselves as much reflected in the community and mainstream,” Gittens said. “So this is one of the efforts we put together for them to see that we highlight their culture, we care about you, we know what background you’re coming from. I think it gives them a sense of, ‘Oh, I can see myself as well, I know I’m valued as well.’”

“We want to be role models,” Valle said.

When it comes to issues of racial equity, Valle and Gittens said they think they’re making progress with small steps forward.

“I’ve been at Leopold awhile, and I’m still believing change will come,” Valle said. “The future will be bright for us.”

“I think as a child, you need to know who you are, and I think this is a good time to figure that out,” Gibson said.