Students Compete In Charter School's Annual Black History Showdown

Date Published: 
February 7, 2019
Author: 
Saraya Wintersmith
News Type: 

Trinity Raye is a champion. At not quite 5 feet tall and about 70 pounds, the bespectacled seventh grader is known to teachers and classmates at Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy charter school in Dorchester as "the boss."

Last year, she was part of the winning team in the academy's first ever Black History Showdown, a student competition similar to network television's "Jeopardy." The scholarly contest is one way students and staff at the predominately black school in Fields Corner recognize Black History Month.

"You already know I'm ready," Raye, 13, boasted with a tilted head and a smile. "I'm always ready for a competition because I like to compete."

Raye considers herself studious, but the competition, she said, motivated her to learn even more.

"I want to learn about my culture, I want to learn where I come from, I want to learn about my ancestors. I just feel like it makes me more powerful," she told WGBH News. "It makes me think, 'Wow, our ancestors really had to go through so much for us to go to school and learn and to be free, so why waste it?' And we should share facts about them."

The Black History Showdown is all about facts. The two-and-a-half-month competition tests students' knowledge of more than 100 historic African American figures across four categories: arts and culture, sports, politics and education, and science and technology.

Students receive study packets before their winter break, then return to school and participate in elimination rounds throughout the month of January. Competitors are whittled down to a dozen. That dozen is then grouped into teams that go head-to-head in the final showdown in the school's auditorium before a live audience. This year's final showdown is scheduled for Feb. 13.

Principal Arturo Forrest II is the contest's architect. The idea, he told WGBH News, came from a similar game he played while growing up in Detroit. Last year's competition was tough, with enthusiasm and few wrong answers, and that's what he wants for the students.

"We have to put a premium on academic competition and treat it like a sport. The same way you'd get ready for a basketball game, we want our students to practice and be ready," he said.

Ben Coblyn, a history teacher at Davis Leadership Academy, said, "During the showdown, you really get to see the kids who like academic competition, or just competition in general."

Coblyn, 33, said he watched the event transform some reclusive students into competitive scholars like Raye.

"Maybe taking notes, or sharing in class isn't their thing, but when you start keeping score, kids that may not be interested in the academic piece still like to win," he explained.

Coblyn said the competition also helps with his job as a history teacher, by connecting and affirming the school community.

"It's nice, because they've been studying a much more diverse social studies concept than I did when I was in school," he said, pointing to what he described as a mainly "Eurocentric" curriculum in his native town of Amherst, Massachusetts. "I find that it's easier when you're learning about yourself to pay attention in class."

"Before I came here, I didn't know anything about black history and where I actually come from," said Virmarie Feliz, another member of last year's winning team.

Feliz, 12, said in addition to learning about NASA engineer Mary Jackson, singer Marian Anderson and entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, the students learned teamwork through group studying and respectful deliberation during competition.

"If one person says this or the other one says that, you have to be able to comprehend what the other person is saying, and be stable enough to disagree or agree with them," she explained.

Raye agrees when it comes to the Black History Showdown, good sportsmanship is just as important as good study habits.

"It's just all about having fun, even if you win or lose, it doesn't matter," she said.

Both Raye and Feliz told WGBH News they're aiming to take the showdown's championship title again this year.

The winning team gets a trophy, gifts cards and prizes sponsored by local businesses, and a chaperoned trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

The school hopes to expand the competition into a Dorchester-area tournament with three other schools the following month.