The Board of Education voted Thursday to approve a new state-mandated “African-American/Black and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies” course at Greenwich High School. But not until after the four Republican board members expressed reservations about the detailed curriculum created by the State Education Resource Center of Connecticut (SERC).
The Republicans had previously shared their misgivings about the curriculum at the January board meeting. “(The curriculum) talks about systemic racism and doesn’t even even ask the question, ‘Is there systemic racism?’” said vice chair Karen Kowalski.
Also, at that meeting the four Republicans voted against a policy codifying Title IX prohibiting sexual harassment and discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. That includes schools not being permitted to exclude transgender athletes from high school teams. Even though all boards of education are required by law to adopt a policy compliant with Title IX, the 4-4 vote meant the policy failed to be adopted. An attorney from Shipman & Goodwin said that meant the town could be exposed to lawsuits.
The two-semester Black & Latino Studies course is already listed in the 2022-2023 course catalogue, and students are in the process of selecting it as a social studies elective.
Deputy superintendent Ann Carabillo said GHS social studies teachers would volunteer to teach the course, and that will require significant preparation on their part.
Several people testified during public comment, including former board member, Republican Peter Sherr, who said he had gone through the 300-page curriculum, and while the course content seemed “excellent, interesting, topical and engaging,” there were six lessons he found problematic, including one called Systemic Racism: 1965 to Present, and another on Black Lives Matter.
“If you address the six you can probably make sure that the Greenwich curriculum does not become politicized,” he said.
“Dr. Jones has repeatedly claimed that Critical Race Theory concepts are not being taught in Greenwich Schools,” he said, referring to the district superintendent. “Yet here they are proposing a course that is teaching anti-racist principles.”
Also, he said, “Connecticut is the state in the nation with the highest number of Italian-American descendants. There are four modules about Columbus depicting him as essentially conducting genocide and essentially talking about how the US has occupied and created massacres in Puerto Rico. I think that content is a little offensive.”
“Under Conneccticut statutes, the board is required to review and approve all curriculum,” Mr. Sherr said. “Stop teaching curriculum that isn’t approved, particularly SEL (social and emotional learning). Make all curriculum sent through the authorized curriculum committee so that it can be brought to the board and approved.”
“Please take these actions to build public trust in our students’ education and prevent the infection of partisan ideologies plaguing other school systems around the country,” he added.
Julie Faryniarz, the director of the non profit Greenwich Alliance for Education said the course dovetailed with her group’s mission.
“As mentioned in the report, this course embodies and develops many Vision of the Graduate principles, particularly, ‘Recognize and respect other cultures and points of view,’ a capacity that is so important today and always,” Faryniarz said.
Myra Klockenbrink also testified in favor of the course.
“We brought our multi-racial family to Greenwich to take advantage of its fine schools, and our children have received an exemplary education. Next year our son will have the welcome opportunity to take a course in Black and Latino history,” she said. “A Republican member of the board threatened last meeting to audit the course. I recommend all the Republican members audit it, since they are suspicious of its use. I recommend their Democratic counterparts audit it as well, since they were silent when its validity was called into question.”
Janet McMahon also spoke in favor of the course. “It is critical to teach our children the whole of American history from past to present, and from a variety of perspectives, especially from the perspective of those those most marginalized in our society.”
Isabelle Harper, a GHS student, said she was one of many students excited to take the course.
“I think every student that I know, including myself, wants to learn the whole history of the country,” she said. “Not just of one specific culture, but of all the cultures that have helped grow the country to what it is now.”
Ms Carabillo said details on the Honors option for the course would be worked out over the summer. “I did not want the teachers to do additional work until it was approved,” she explained.
Ms Kowalski, who has said she wanted to audit the course next year, said she hoped it would meet early in the morning. She said she had reviewed the curriculum extensively, and while she understood the district was required by the state to offer the course, board policy was to have it be vetted by the curriculum committee first.
Ms Kowalski and Karen Hirsh represent the board on the curriculum committee.
“What I do not see in this statute is that we are required to take the curriculum they’ve provided – a fairly detailed day-by-day, course-by-course, without having gone through our own curriculum committee, as required by our policies.”
Ms Carabillo said the activities in the course provided by the state were recommended, not required, and could be used as a guide.
“All the people who worked on it at SERC are educators or administrators,” Carabillo explained. “All the materials have been vetted, and all of the information is correct. I think it’s a really good curriculum to look at and try it out for the first year.”
Ms Kowalski said there was “some strong political ideology” in some of the blocks.
Ms Carabillo replied, “The teachers at the high school have looked at it, and they do think it is an appropriate course, and they are going to be receiving some training in April and in the summer. And if there are changes, they believe need to be made, it’ll be appropriate for them to make those changes.”
“That would be a curriculum change,” Kowalski said. “It has to come to the board to make that change.”
Kowalski said it would set a bad precedent for the board not to follow procedure in approving the course. “Which is why we have a curriculum committee.”
She suggested modifying the motion to say the course would be approved subject to review by the curriculum committee and then coming to the board for a vote.
Michael-Joseph Mercanti-Anthony said the breadth of the curriculum problematic as it was “jam packed.”
“By its very nature, that guide, teachers are going to have to make decisions about what to include and not to include.”
He questioned the way some of the controversial topics were structured, and whether they were presented in a way that allowed students to make up their own minds.
“Case in point on the Columbus lessons, the evidence of learning is to write an op ed on why Columbus Day should be re-titled Indigenous People’s Day. Maybe that is true. That’s not the purview of the board, but I know there are a lot of people in the community who have different opinions on that, and all the more appropriate that the curriculum supports students in developing their own mind on that and looking at the evidence.”
“You have this on-high curriculum-by-legislation,” Mercanti-Antony said. “I think it’s time to take the reins and make sure the actual curriculum we’re approving is appropriate for our students and teachable.”
Boad Chair Kathleen Stowe reminded the board that the course was an elective and that if a parent was not comfortable with their child taking it, they weren’t forced to.
“We approve concepts of curriculum. We don’t approve daily lesson plans,” she said. “I don’t think that’s the job of a board. I think teachers are professionals. They take a guide, they’re not robots, and they pivot.”
“For example, today they were covering the Berlin Wall coming down, but guess what this wonderful teacher did today? He talked about Russia invading the Ukraine and it was relevant and I think it was important to pivot,” Ms Stowe said. “It wasn’t part of his lesson plan, but it is a part of global studies…I don’t want to get lost in form over substance.”
“I agree teacher are not robots,” Ms Kowalski said. “Teachers are magical and wonderful human beings that do God’s work.”
But, she said, the board was driven by process and procedure, and that the curriculum should be vetted by the curriculum committee and then return to the board for approval.
Ms Hirsh said she didn’t see anything wrong with asking the curriculum committee to review the course’s sequencing to ensure it met the district’s standards of rigor and to make sure it would fit with the GHS block schedule.
“That’s something we can ask,” she said. “I think it’s important for people to understand there is a vast difference between the overarching curriculum and the daily lesson plans…”
Ms Carabillo agreed.
“When I first looked at it I thought there’s no way we can follow that scope and sequence. So we’re going to have to make choices, but we give the teachers an opportunity first to take a deep dive into it.”
Further, Carabillo said the course was being piloted this year and those schools have been giving feedback to the state and to the people who wrote the curriculum.
“They’ve been putting together comments on what has been successful and what has not. I’m sure they will be able to share information with us so we can make the adjustments where they will be necessary.”
Board member Cody Kittle said he was concerned the course curriculum put forward a viewpoint rather than expose students to broad viewpoints in order to teach critical thinking.
“It doesn’t make sense for politicians in Hartford to mandate day-by-day curriculum plans. I know Ann (Carabillo), you’re going to say it was all designed by experts, but it’s still a political process.”
“We have a class being forced on us by politicians in Hartford that have different incentives ensuring kids get a quality education,” Mr. Kittle continued. “If something is pushed down from the top like that, you run the risk of the quality of education being compromised.”
“One lesson plan asks the question, ‘Is reform of inequitable systems enough?’ That got to me because, you’re not saying, ‘Hey, let’s evaluate whether the systems in the US are inequitable. It presupposes that, and then just says, ‘Is reform enough?'”
“I had some great teachers (at Greenwich High School) like Mr. Epstein who wouldn’t have a lot of similar political views to me, but would start the questions very broad so you could explore everything.”
“There is another one asking students how will they dismantle and rebuild outside the Euro-centric model. Questions like this, that I think parents in the community are going to ask – does that teach critical thinking or is that teaching something with a lot of political assumptions built in?”
Joe Kelly said he was concerned the board was making a decision with its back to the wall.
“In a sensitive topic where we have opinions on both sides, we’re not getting to understand the specifics that might infuriate some of our constituents,” Mr. Kelly said. “That worries me.”
“We shouldn’t bring every curriculum to the board,” superintendent Dr. Toni Jones said. “This is an elective course. They’ve given us guidance, and it’s not like there is an assessment where the students have to meet a certain standard.”
Ms Kowalski suggested another modification to the motion, to vote to include the course in the course handbook, but note that it was subject to revisions and review by the curriculum committee.
Ms Stowe noted that the two BOE members on the curriculum committee would represent the board’s voice, but the course curriculum would not return before the board for approval.
The board voted unanimously 8-0 to approve the amended motion.
A full curriculum guide, including lesson plans and resources, provided by the State Education Resource Center (SERC) can be accessed HERE.
More on public act 19-12 and opportunity for feedback HERE.
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