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At Bethel, history touches all the bases


At Bethel Christian School, Mrs. Darlene Gilbert's class of fourth and fifth graders is marching through history.

Other classes in other schools might look at the subject matter and label the lesson "black history." Still other schools might say the same things during their unit on "values education." Others still might look at the discussion as "religious study" and not engage in it at all.

But there are no such distinctions at Bethel Christian School, a church-based elementary school founded by Bethel A.M.E. Church in 1983, and so, Mrs. Gilbert's class of fourth and fifth graders is marching through history: from the ancient African histories of Ghana and Songhay to the life and times of young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"And who was the lady who started a school with $1.50?" asks Mrs. Gilbert and the class responds, "Mary McCloud Bethune."

"That's right, and she was very, what?"

"Innovative," responds some.

"Creative," respond others.

"That's right and we are looking at things that we can do as people, too," Mrs. Gilbert reminds them. "If they can be creative and innovative, so can we."

The atmosphere vibrates with energy and enthusiasm. Everyone seems involved. Mrs. Gilbert leads it, conducts it, orchestrates the discussion, reminding a visitor at times of the call and response patterns of a Baptist service.

"They thought we were, what, inferior," prompts Mrs. Gilbert, "but actually, in many ways we were, what, superior: why? because we had to learn another language, adjust to a new environment."

"But are all white people bad?" she asks after discussing the hatred and fear that characterized members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The class seems stumped.

"We know," prompts the teacher, "that in our own family histories some people were slaves and some were white, so no, some white people are Christians. Some are brothers in the family of Christ."

There are 16 boys and girls in Mrs. Gilbert's class, all neatly dressed in navy blue school uniforms and white shirts and blouses, with an an emblem of a wise owl on their sweaters. The walls are brightly painted and covered with posters and lesson plans. Mrs. Claire Dorsey, a retired public school principal, assists. A parent is in the back of the room observing.

At another point in the discussion, while the class discusses the movies "Roots" and "Glory", Mrs. Dorsey asks, "Why do you think the author chose to title his movie, 'Glory'?"

That throws the class for a second, before one young man answers, "because it wasn't really about winning or losing, but about fighting for your rights."

"Good!" beams Mrs. Gilbert. "I like that."

At the end of the lesson, a parent who had been observing in the back addresses the class.

"Boys and girls," she says fervently, "I cannot begin to tell you how impressed I was by your energy and your intelligence and your enthusiasm. I cannot wait for my little daughter to begin here."

Bethel Christian School started as a vision, grew into a dream, and blossomed into a reality some 10 years ago.

"My predecessor (Dr. John Bryant) went before the congregation in 1981 and told them that by the grace of the Lord, he had received a vision that we should found a church," said Dr. Frank Reid, pastor of Bethel A.M.E.

"And that vision has not changed," Dr. Reid continued.

"In fact it has expanded and intensified. We believe that we provide an excellent, church-oriented education for members of this community. We believe that a focus on spiritual values, and values about ourselves as a people will make them better students."

Dr. Reid said the church has now embarked upon a 10-year expansion program so that it can eventually offer courses from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade.

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