Grant-Funded Historical Initiative

Grant-Funded Historical Initiative Combines Learning With Charitable Work
Posted on 04/20/2021
1928 Hurricane Marker

Middle school teachers inspired to connect with students in a more meaningful way, are seeing great success with a program funded by the Education Foundation of Palm Beach County.

“GoTeach! Grants are making a real difference in our schools,” said James Gavrilos, President/CEO of the Education Foundation. “We’re putting teachers in the driver seat and allowing them to tell us what initiatives will resonate with their students.”

Elizabeth Eck, Donna Melius, Dr. Julianne Polito, and Yoelquis Tomas from Conniston Middle School received a GoReach! Classroom Grant for their 1928 Reflect and Remember Project. The goal is to teach students about their local history and to memorialize the lives lost during the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928.

Although the hurricane's destruction affected everything in its path, the highest death toll and the worst aftermath occurred in the economically poor areas in the low-lying ground near Lake Okeechobee, such as the towns of Belle Glade, Pahokee, and South Bay. Approximately 75% of the fatalities were among migrant farm workers, most of whom were Black.

The surviving Black workers did most of the post-hurricane cleanup work. White victims received a formal burial service, but Black victims did not, a reflection of the racial and class discrimination prevalent at the time. Learning this information prompted students to learn more, leading them to visit the mass burial site for Black victims located in West Palm Beach.

Students worked on plans to enhance the burial site, giving them the chance to be part of a project that brings honor to people who had not been given the proper recognition.

“The students saw potential in the site. They provided ideas to beautify and improve it,” Polito said.

Polito was inspired to bring an age-appropriate lesson to her students, following her attendance at the Racial Equity Institute, a workshop designed to help leaders and organizations who want to proactively understand and address racism in their organization and in the community.

“We invited speakers from the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, and from the Spady Museum, and speakers who experienced the Jim Crow laws in their own lives,” Polito said.

In 2020 when schools shifted to virtual learning as a result of COVID-19, the effect was devastating for many students. As a teacher, Polito wanted to help.

“We are in a pandemic and facing racial inequities, and students are witnessing that firsthand. Now is the perfect time to get students engaged and take action,” Polito said. “We thought that students should have the opportunity to engage in a meaningful learning experience, with the potential to channel feelings of grief, isolation, and loss into an honorable project.”

Dr. Polito’s efforts to educate students and the community continues with her being chosen to speak at the District’s African American and Latino Summer Institutes. She hopes that similar initiatives take off at other schools, giving students the opportunity to learn about the complicated racial history of Palm Beach County.

“I hope the District moves on this opportunity to try to bring students more in touch with their communities and take civic action. This is not a one time thing, it has to have a sustainable impact,” she said.

Special thanks to the Education Foundation of Palm Beach County and The Frederick A. DeLuca Foundation for funding this project. During the 2019-2020 school year, the Education Foundation awarded $110,000 in funding to support 94 GoTeach! Classroom Grants, supporting 19,000 students and serving 60 schools.

The School District of Palm Beach County