As February begins, schools around the area prepare to celebrate black history month. But students and faculty at the Academy of Notre Dame believe they have succeeded in keeping the spirit of black history alive year-round.

Along with student posters of prominent African-American figures displayed in the Notre Dame lobby in commemoration of the black history theme hang paintings of a black Jesus Christ bearing the cross and a black Virgin and Child. The paintings reflect a distinct historical and educational perspective, one that Notre Dame attempts to cultivate and nurture.

"It's important to provide role models for our young women to have them see themselves in a positive way," said Gwynette Proctor, principal of the predominantly black Catholic school for girls, at North Capitol and K streets NW.

If Notre Dame students learn about black history year-round, they will learn even more this month. Academy English teachers have assigned the students to read and report on a book written by a black author. Religion teacher Verlin Yenzer is coordinating field trips to the Smithsonian's Anacostia Neighborhood Museum for the exhibit on the history of the black church.

Yenzer is also organizing a forum of community activists who will discuss how the civil rights movement changed the District economically, demographically, socially and religiously. And social studies teacher Lois Weber assigned her classes to report on a prominent black figure.

Art teacher Aden Hachman said he always incorporates black history education in his classes. "I teach the history of the art we study." And he said, "A lot of times that history includes facts particularly interesting to blacks."

Hachman said when the class studied statues and structures around the District, the students were surprised to find that the statue of a woman atop the U.S. Capitol dome is called "Freedom" and that it was originally made of plaster, then cast into metal by slave labor. He said students were also interested to learn that the headdress worn by the statue was originally a "liberty cap" worn by freed slaves of Rome, but Jefferson Davis, who was a senator at the time, thought the cap was an inappropriate symbol of hope for slaves and had it changed.

"They don't usually hear about these kinds of things," Hachman said. "But when they realize how much blacks have contributed to this city, they develop a sense of pride. They say 'this is not a city we just came to, it was built by us.' "

"I hadn't learned any black history until I came here," said junior Jayci Knights, who had attended a predominantly white private school. "One teacher told me, in essence, that blacks didn't really offer much to America, so they shouldn't waste their time teaching about them," she said. "I tried to argue with him about it, but since I didn't know any history, I couldn't use names and contributions {of blacks}."

Most students at the academy agreed that black history should be incorporated in history classes in all high schools, or offered as a separate course. Notre Dame officials said that the academy once offered History of Black Literature as an elective, but it was canceled when fewer than 10 students registered.

But students claim they are interested in learning black history. "Our teachers incorporate black history in our classes all year, because they care. They want us to know," said 16-year-old Carolyn Brown. "See those pictures over there," she said pointing to a wall lined with portraits of 20th century black personalitites. "Those pictures aren't there for Black History Month. They stay up there all year-round."

One student, however, said she doesn't think learning black history is important. "I don't think when I go for a job, {the employer} is going to ask me what Martin Luther King did," said senior Nicole Springs. One of her classmates interrupted. "If Martin Luther King hadn't {organized} the movement, she might not even be able to apply for that job . . . And she wouldn't know if she was being discriminated against," said senior Wanda Wright, president of the Onyx Club, a Notre Dame-Gonzaga student organization.

At Gonzaga College high school, an all-male, predominantly white private school across the street from Notre Dame, one black student said he is satisfied to have a black speaker address the student body during Black History Month. Congressman Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.) will be this year's speaker.

"People need to know what blacks went through and how they overcame tribulations to achieve goals," said 17-year-old senior Kenneth Miles.

Miles, also a member of the Onyx Club, said he understands that black history isn't taught at Gonzaga because it is a predominantly white school.

Another student, however, said he thinks that it is important to teach the history of all races. "I think there's still quite a bit of racism in America . . . if we all learn the history of the other races, {everyone} will have a better understanding," said Creighton Armstrong, a white student.

Armstrong said he learns a little about black history in a Social Justice class, which is a requirement for seniors. "We had to write a paper on the evils of racism," he said.

The headmaster at Gonzaga, Joseph Ciancaglini, said the school is considering adding a black history course as an elective next year.

For this month's observance, other private and public high school teachers throughout the District are planning assemblies to feature speakers and entertainment, displaying exhibits of African American culture, and assigning reports on African American figures.

Congressman Floyd Flake (D-NY), poet Helen Tate, and the Black Voices Music Theatre Ensemble will be featured at Ballou High School in Anacostia, along with other activities.

At Notre Dame students will write about many of their role models, who include Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Malcolm X, Bill Cosby, Whitney Houston, and Whoopi Goldberg.

"I like Whoopi Goldberg because she started out on welfare . . . and used her talent to get somewhere," said junior Crystal Archer.

Students seemed to admire black figures who have overcome major obstacles. "Malcolm X is my role model . . . he rose from being a pimp and a drug addict to become a leader," said 17-year-old Janelle Gross.

"I like Whitney Houston because she's a very talented young woman and I'd like to follow in her footsteps," said 16-year-old Angela Smith who sings in the choir at the First Baptist Church of Marshall Heights.

"I think Oprah Winfrey has done a lot for black women," said junior Tanzy Brown. "Not just because she has her own show and beat out Donahue . . . She's good."