Laquisha McFarlane was skeptical that a slave living in the United States in 1836 could write a page-long letter, then get it delivered from North Carolina to Rhode Island? First of all, the 12-year-old Stamford student asked, who would teach her to write, given laws at the time forbidding the education of slaves? Second, who’d risk transporting the evidence that the law had been broken? The letter she was viewing, she concluded, had to be a fake.

“Let’s explore the real and not-real idea,” said Mark Nowotarski, facilitator of the discussion involving 10 middle school students on a recent Saturday afternoon. He discussed with the youngsters how they’d go about determining the letter’s veracity with computer searches, book research, scientific dating of the original document, and other means.

Fleshing out historical truths by expanding 21st century perspectives is a goal of Rites of Passage, a Stamford Public Schools-supported initiative for middle school students. The program helps students accurately learn about the heritage of African Americans. Students meet every Saturday for 14 consecutive weeks for comprehensive course work that includes ancient African history, exploitation and economics of the Atlantic slave trade, the dehumanization process, the abolitionist movement, civil rights and more. After completing the course work, students travel to West Africa.

A major objective of Rites of Passage is to address African-American student underachievement, which organizers say is a result of inadequate information regarding their heritage and economic power, as well as their underuse of educational opportunities. Many members of the program are African American, but not all.

“The course is intended for African-American children, but it’s open to any child – Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic. We’re pleased with the cross-section of kids we’ve had,” said program director Rodney Bass, a former Stamford district principal.

Rites of Passage is in its sixth year. Alumni of the initial program are now sophomores in college.

“When I heard about it, I thought it would be a good experience. I’m learning things I never learned before or thought about, like how slaves felt,” said Laquisha, a Dolan student, who was having second thoughts about the letter and was now leaning towards it’s being real.

“I learned a lot of things that are sugarcoated during class,” added Daio Poindexter, 12, a Scofield student. “I didn’t know about abolitionists, and that the Civil War was really a fight over economic power.”

What do you think of the historic perspective emphasized in the Rites of Passage program? Do you think it is a good way to help address the achievement gap?