Amherst high school planned to cancel a class on race. These students weren’t having it.
Earlier this spring, Amherst Central High School decided not to offer a longtime elective class called “Race in America” during the coming school year. Then came the police killing of George Floyd, nationwide protests over systemic racism, and a group of students that wasn’t having it.
The half-year course explores how race is expressed and influenced by different sectors of American society from the arts to the law. It also asks students to grapple with concepts like white privilege, implicit bias and more.
“I had never, like, talked about that before, so personally, it was such an uncomfortable situation,” said Maria Alaimo, 17, a rising senior who took the course last year. “And that’s why we need this class. Talking about it [race and racism] is making people comfortable about talking about it, and that’s what’s going to help us.”
Alaimo, who is white, also credits the popular teacher of the class, Pamela Fordham, with helping her realize that she wants to go into criminal justice reform.
“I realized how passionate I was in her class and even in her English class is when it all started, and because of her I feel like I’ve come so far, and she’s had a big part in who I am today,” Alaimo said. “If you ever get to meet Ms. Fordham, she’s just the sweetest person ever, and she’s so passionate about whatever she talks about.”
Fordham is one of just a few Black teachers in the Amherst Central School district. She said she’s been the sole African American teacher at the high school for most of her 25-year career. At the same time, 30% of Amherst students are students are color: 14% are Black, 7% Asian or Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, 5% Hispanic or Latinx, 4% multiracial and less than 1% American Indian or Alaska Native, according to the New York State Education Department.
“I guess it felt kind of good just to have other people start understanding different issues that they wouldn’t go through,” said Darion Frederick, 16, a Black student who also took Fordham’s elective last year. “Sometimes it was nice just to, like, be in that class and not really speak that much but just listen to what other people said to see if they’re really understanding what’s going on in the world with people besides themselves.”
Like Alaimo, Frederick is a rising senior and the pair teamed up when they found out that “Race in America” wasn’t going to be offered during the coming school year. In a recent blog post, Fordham wrote that she was notified about that decision in a faculty Zoom meeting where she said she ran out of energy to be the only one fighting to keep the course.
“I couldn’t read another line from the ‘angry Black woman’s’ script,” Fordham said. “I was waiting for someone else in the meeting to be ‘fired up,’ but everyone else was waiting for me.”
Both Fordham and Principal Gregory Pigeon declined to do recorded interviews for this story, but Pigeon confirmed that the scheduling change was finalized by early May. Alaimo and Frederick said they started exchanging emails with Pigeon and asking him to keep the course before the end of the school year.
“I think Mr. Pigeon has great intentions for the school but the way that he responded and reacted to this issue at hand was not how he should have handled it at all,” Alaimo said, adding that Pigeon kept pushing back a planned Zoom meeting to talk about the students’ concerns. Alaimo also said Pigeon repeatedly changed the topic to other district efforts that help foster greater racial understanding, like the Challenge 2 Change after-school program.
“I often meet with our students when they have an idea or a concern. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of being principal and collaborations with students has resulted in many new events, initiatives and clubs,” Pigeon said in written responses provided to WBFO. “The fact that the students felt comfortable coming to me demonstrates my relationship with the students, my approachable nature and availability. The students and I had been, and are still, actively engaged in a very positive conversation to address this course and other initiatives.”
However, Alaimo and Frederick said they felt pressured not to take any public action about the course's cancellation. For example, Alaimo said she remembers Pigeon warning that they “wouldn’t want to put a bad name on Amherst.” Both students said they feared retribution for speaking out, possibly to the extent of expulsion. Pigeon said he was “never aware that they perceived pressure about any of the ideas we discussed.”
“Honestly, in my 30-year career I do not think the words ‘pressure’ and ‘retribution’ were ever part of the same sentence with ‘Mr. Pigeon’ so this is very unfortunate,” Pigeon wrote. He also said it was always his intention to simply pause the course during the 2020-2021 school year in order to update it and promote it in order to address chronically low enrollment numbers. But Alaimo and Frederick said the course wasn’t promoted well.
“A lot of my friends found out that I was taking it from me [and] they were like ‘I didn’t even know that was a class option,’” Alaimo said.
Frederick added that he only found out about the course by talking to his school counselor. “It’s not like he [Pigeon] ever emailed any of the students that took it and asked us, ‘What’s a way that we could promote this class more?’ Frederick said. “If we didn’t say anything about it, nothing would have happened.”
Pigeon said the school’s ability to promote elective classes through in-person methods was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, but he said a full list of the elective course options and their descriptions was made available to students and parents through the district’s curriculum handbook.
“I cannot stress enough how this was intended to support the program, through a thoughtful and deliberate moment to recalibrate with the department and get to the root cause of the string of low enrollments (less than 10) in that course over the past few years,” Pigeon said.
Even so, news that the class was being canceled next year reached graduating senior Aden Clemente, 18, who started a Change.org petition to reinstate it—unaware of Alaimo and Frederick’s private efforts.
“I think at 6 a.m. I posted it, don’t ask me why I was up that early, and at 12 p.m. I was already on the phone with Mr. Pigeon because he had noticed how many signatures the petition had gained by then,” said Clemente.
That was on Wednesday, June 24. Five days and 1,291 signatures later, “Race in America” was back on the list of electives for this fall. Two days after registration opened, Pigeon said eight students had already registered—more than the total number of students who were in Alaimo’s cohort.
“The course shouldn’t have been removed under any circumstances but especially during the times that we’re going through, the need for racial discourse is more important than ever,” Clemente said.
None of the three students WBFO interviewed said they had been involved in any activism prior to the past month. All now agree they’ve learned that even young people can make a difference.
“Anyone could come in, step in and try to make a difference with whatever’s going on, whether it’s just like posting something, raising awareness, or actually taking it upon yourself to email people or do petitions,” Frederick said. “And it’s anyone that cares about social justice. Obviously, it’s not just Black people.”
“Just speak your mind if you think it’s right,” Alaimo said. “You shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for what’s right at your school or just anywhere.”
Principal Pigeon said he’s proud of the students and is now hoping to offer “Race in America” not just once but twice in the coming school year. Ms. Fordham said she’s been overwhelmed by the support of the community.
“As a teacher, my hope is that students will be inspired and empowered in class to make their communities better, and maybe even change the world,” Fordham said in written comments. “The tragic death of George Floyd and so many others proves that there is still so much work to be done, but the individual and collective efforts of so many young people makes me feel hopeful about the future. I am so glad that Amherst High School will continue to be a place where students can have impactful conversations about race in America.”