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NY1 Exclusive: School Community Outraged Over Math Problems That Reference Slaves Dying, Being Beaten

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Parents, school officials and other educators are expressing shock over a homework assignment that went out to young students at a Manhattan elementary school that asked students to answer math problems about slaves being beaten and dying. NY1's Lindsey Christ filed the following report.

It was quite a homework assignment that a fourth grade teacher at P.S. 59 wanted to give her students last Thursday.

It consisted of a few math problems, but Aziza Harding, the student teacher who was asked to photocopy the worksheet, couldn't believe a couple of the questions.

"I'm just like, 'Wow, this is really inappropriate,'" she said.

Question 1 on the sheet, entitled "Slavery Word Problems Homework", was written as a matter-of-fact subtraction problem. It asked:

"In a slave ship, there can be 3,799 slaves. One day, the slaves took over the ship. 1,897 are dead. How many slaves are alive?"

The second question had multiple parts multiplication and addition. It said:

"One slave got whipped five times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month (31 days)? Another slave got whipped nine times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month? How many times did the two slaves get whipped together in one month?"

"It shouldn't be a homework assignment, and I did not want to make copies of this," Harding said.

The teacher who had told Harding to copy the assignment was in a meeting, so Harding made the decision on her own to photocopy another worksheet instead. She left the teacher a note explaining that she wasn't comfortable with the first assignment and hoped to talk.

Then, Harding turned to Charlton McIlwain, one of her professors at NYU, where she is a graduate student.

"My first thought was, I don't believe it," McIlwain said.

McIlwain contacted NY1, and we eventually showed the worksheet to the principal of P.S. 59. She later wrote to us, saying, "I am appalled by this."

But what's perhaps even more shocking: it turns out this particular worksheet has already gone home, with another fourth-grade class, in January, and the questions had been written by students in that class, as part of their instruction on slavery.

"You're ostensibly teaching or trying to teach history or call attention to a particular historical moment, yet there's no explanation, there's no education, there's no teaching going on," McIlwain said. "And so, for someone who is probably, at nine years of age, has maybe heard of slavery but probably doesn't know what it is really like, their first, perhaps, and most lasting impression about this historical event comes in a very abstracted, nonchalant type of thing that they have no real sense of connection to."

Parents and caregivers were upset when NY1 showed them the questions outside of P.S. 59 Thursday.

"It just sounds to me that whoever assigned this or gave these out has a personal issue or something," said Julia Morales, a babysitter. "This is unacceptable. If my kid, if I had a kid, I'd be so ticked off. I would not be happy with this."

"It's a little graphically written, I would say. Quite graphically written, especially number 2," said Kristen Markoplis, a parent. "Obviously, I'm sure you heard that before."

The Department of Education released a statement, saying, "This is obviously unacceptable and we will take appropriate disciplinary action against these teachers. The Chancellor spoke to the principal, and she has already taken steps to ensure this does not happen again."

The teacher who created the assignment has been at P.S. 59 for seven years. The teacher who asked Harding to photocopy the worksheet for her students has been teaching in city schools for five years, but is new to P.S. 59.

The principal said she'll be meeting with families and all staff members will undergo related training.

The whistleblowing student teacher said she hopes that P.S. 59 students will get help understanding why slavery is a much more serious issue than these simple math problems.

"Instead of these kids being desensitized to this type of violence, that they have a general idea that, 'Wow, this was a terrible thing that happened to a group of people for over 300 years,'" Harding said.

NY1 took the worksheet to the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, where people were equally as shocked about the worksheet's contents.

"There's already racism still going on, and with it being Black History Month and hatred and stuff like that, it's teaching them at a young age," said one.

"That child is hearing some type of conversation that's totally inappropriate, but exposing those other children to whatever foolishness is going on at home, that's a travesty," said another.

Those who NY1 spoke with in Fort Greene wanted to see the adults involved held accountable.

After seeing NY1's story, State Senator Simcha Felder, who is the chairman of the New York City Education Sub-Committee, emailed a statement that read, "While the city, state and unions are busy haggling over teacher evaluations, New York City's students are being subjected to reprehensible and irresponsible educational materials. I am calling for the immediate removal of these two teachers."

Felder also commended the student teacher for coming forward.

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