Members and allies of the LGBTQ community are calling on the Charlottesville school division to make sure all identities are reflected in lessons and activities after officials took down and later restored a lesson about identity that mentioned gender.
School division officials said this week that they heard those calls and are committed to making sure that the school system and its curriculum are inclusive.
“I look at our students, and I think all of them deserve to have to feel like they’re included in the history that we’re teaching and the social studies lessons that we’re teaching, and I just don’t want anybody to feel like their stories not being told or not being told to accurately,” board chairwoman Jennifer McKeever said on Wednesday.
The lesson — which was part of the third-grade Social Studies curriculum — focused on how students identify as an introduction to a broader antiracist curriculum that was developed over the summer with several other school divisions. The identity lessons are specific to Charlottesville and are available to teachers through the division’s learning management system Canvas.
The lesson touched on different aspects of identity including race, religion and gender, among other topics. As part of the discussion on gender, there was a brief mention that some people are non-binary, meaning they don’t identify as either gender, the division said.
Two parents, who overheard the lesson during virtual classes, raised questions about the inclusion of non-binary as a gender identity, and the lesson was taken down on Sept. 17. After a policy review and talking to the School Board, the lessons were re-posted Sept. 24. Overall, feedback about the lesson has been positive, the division said, and families appreciated how the lesson built in identity and respect for others.
“We teach controversial things all the time; this is not highly controversial,” McKeever said, adding that once the School Board heard it was taken down, they moved to have it quickly restored.
This issue was a topic of several public comments made during Thursday’s School Board meeting. Community members wanted to know why it was taken down were in favor of its restoration. They also called on the division to do more to support LGBTQ students and employees, including providing training to teachers through groups such as Side by Side.
T. Denise Johnson, the division’s supervisor of equity, said Thursday that she’s already reached out Side by Side, which supports LGBTQ youth and has offices in Charlottesville and Richmond.
She added that the division is hosting a series of training sessions during lunch time that will begin next Friday and are open to staff. One session will focus on conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Phin Green-Marshall, a Charlottesville High School student who is non-binary, said elementary students should be able to learn about all sorts of gender identities
“It’s just like they know that something is different about them, but they don’t know what it is,” Green-Marshall said. “And sometimes they just need the words to know what it is, and they can’t always access those words.”
Cate Tillack, a Charlottesville parent, said her daughter is a non-binary student who loves school and asked the division to love her back.
“Please show her that she exists in the world,” Tillack said. “She gets to have that. She gets to see herself represented as she is in her full, beautiful life.”
Amy Sarah Marshall with Cville Pride said during public comment that she wanted to see a robust, comprehensive system-wide plan to address the issues and needs of LGBTQ students as well as an inclusive curriculum at all grade levels.
“Sexual orientation and gender identity are not controversial anymore and they’re not sexual,” she said. “Kids in kindergarten can have two dads, two moms or a transgender parent. Children in kindergarten can know that they are trans. We have to validate the lived experiences of children and set the stage for all children to understand and respect the differences of people that they will be encountering as they grow.”
Teachers and other community members also asked for the reinstatement of the lessons in an open letter signed by nearly 200 people.
Bekah Saxon with the Virginia Education Association read a letter she sent to the School Board during the meeting’s second public comment section.
“We cannot teach honestly about racism if we do not also acknowledge the ways in which all aspects of our identities work together to form our perspectives and experiences,” Saxon said. “We must also acknowledge how systems of oppression and power affect all portions of ourselves and our community. For this to happen, educators must have the authority and autonomy to select supplemental materials that recognize, affirm, and celebrate every single member of their classroom communities.”
Saxon added that in conversations with other teachers, she found that a group of teachers had a book request denied because it mentioned that LGBTQ identities as part of person identity.
McKeever said the community is widely supportive of ensuring that all voices are included in the curriculum and in lessons.
She added during Thursday’s meeting that she was sorry for those who were hurt by the removal of the lesson.
“But I do think, just from the board’s perspective, I know how frustrated and sad we were for the community members who were hurt by this decision, and I’m very grateful that we have restored those lessons and that we are going to showcase these lessons in the coming months,” she said.
Changing the Narrative
The lesson is part of the division’s Changing the Narrative project, which sought to update the U.S. History curriculum and create other lessons that represent diverse perspectives that have been historically left out of textbooks, in order to be anti-bias and antiracist. Division officials said this week that they could’ve done a better job of communicating the curriculum changes to parents.
“It’s changing a narrative and any time you’re using the word change in any scenario, especially when we’re talking about curriculum, there are going to be adjustments that everyone will have to make,” schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said on Wednesday. “ … And the one message that we want to give loud and clear in our school system is that we’re serious about making every student and every employee and every person in our school division know that they are welcomed in our school division.”
Atkins told board members Thursday that the lesson was taken down because it didn’t follow the board’s policy for curriculum review that entails a public review of the materials.
Board member Lisa Larson-Torres said during a discussion about the issue that she wanted to review the board’s policies on curriculum review.
“I guess it concerns me, with all due respect, that a couple of people questioning some lesson plans can trigger those lesson plans being pulled before it is brought to us for discussion,” she said.
Other board members also were confused about why the lesson was taken down and reiterated their support for having a more inclusive curriculum.
Johnson said the curriculum issue reinforces the need for transparency and communication as the division continues in its broader effort to become more equitable.
“We want to create bases that are welcoming, affirming and supporting of our students, so the work to get there will be work,” she said. “… It’s an ongoing work; we want to get it right ultimately.”
Johnson and division spokeswoman Beth Cheuk said the division is looking at how to set up a process for parents to provide feedback on the curriculum changes, how to support teachers in the effort and educate parents.
“I think that’s the great thing about having a position like mine is that now there’s someone to be able to get this information and create a framework for being intentional around our equity work and making sure that we’re being consistent in our language with the community and that we’re training and supporting our teachers in the way that they need to be,” Johnson said.
Some community members have suggested that the division offer training sessions for parents about how to talk about gender identity and sexual orientation with their children similar to what was provided earlier this year about implicit bias and race.
Cheuk said making sure there are processes in place to review materials put in front of students is a vital effort.
“I think that moving forward is a real commitment to fostering this conversation,” Cheuk said, adding that creating a process would clarify intentions before similar incidents rise again.
During the board meeting, Cheuk said that the division knows the curriculum changes are important.
“As a division we may stumble in this new work as we move forward. Having better processes, support, and communication will be important and helpful, and we’re working on those areas,” she said. “We know social studies is one small part of our larger antiracism and anti-bias work.”
A new state law will give school divisions more guidance about how to support transgender and non-binary students, Cheuk said.
As part of House Bill 145, the Virginia Department of Education will issue that guidance by the end of the year. School divisions are expected to have policies in place by the start of the 2021-22 school year.
“While we have previously found isolated ways to support our gender non-conforming students, we see this legislation as an opportunity to revisit our schools and our processes more broadly and systematically better include and see and love and support our students and families,” she said.