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Dispute brewing over anti-bias lessons at Albemarle middle school

Anti-bias lessons piloted this spring at Henley Middle School have prompted a range of comments to Albemarle County School Board members and dueling petitions from parents for and against the lessons.

A group of parents’ concerns, comments and criticisms come as the division’s anti-racism policy, which was approved in February 2019 and drafted by students, is starting to make its way into classrooms. That policy calls for an anti-racist curriculum, and Henley’s pilot program was the middle school team’s answer to that charge, Principal Beth Costa said.

The Courageous Conversations About Race lessons, created by county teachers and held during the Advisory block, started at the end of April following months of planning. The units walked students through discussions about race, identity, culture, bias and empathy with readings, activities and question prompts such as “What happens when people with different cultures come together in a community?” and others about the cost of white privilege.

“At this age, you can’t dive into anti-racism,” Costa said. “You have to go all the way back to the concept of self in order to understand your community, your culture, then to understand race.”

The content of the lessons has alarmed a group of parents who say the units overstep the school’s role, discriminate against their children who hold different beliefs, infringe on parental rights and create divisions.

Meanwhile, another group of parents says teaching students how to interact with their peers is essential to ensuring all students feel safe and supported, which can be a matter of life and death, given the suicide rates among transgender children.

Sixth- and seventh-graders followed one set of lessons while eighth-graders had a different set that was developed by a division-wide team of middle school diversity resource teachers. Henley was picked to pilot the lessons over the course of six weeks. Feedback from students and teachers will inform work over the summer to prepare to roll lessons out to other county middle schools, Costa said.

Costa said the lessons also stemmed from conversations among teachers last June in the wake of protests over the murder of George Floyd and police brutality.

“We wanted to come back and make sure we have those opportunities to talk about what’s going on in kids’ worlds,” she said.

The goal in talking about bias, privilege and dominant culture was not to make anyone feel bad, Costa said.

“It’s just to raise an awareness of what privilege is, and what is important to know about it,” she said.

Costa said that in a school like Henley, which is one the division’s least diverse, helping students to understand that people identify in different ways is important.

“The important thing was the impact,” she said. “How do you become an ally for someone if you’ve never had that experience? You then can still become that person’s ally … whether that’s about identity or culture or race. That’s the part we’re really going after in a school like Henley that really is not very diverse or representative of the world.”

After listening to 54 people — most of whom were white and in support of the lessons — weigh in on the issue over the last two School Board meetings, board members said Thursday that they supported what Henley was doing but also want more information about the pilot.

“It aligns perfectly with our anti-racism policy,” board Chairman Graham Paige said.

The pushback from parents comes as state lawmakers across the country are aiming to restrict the teaching of critical race theory, systemic racism or bias. At the same time, parents are speaking out at school board meetings about similar issues with the support of national conservative organizations.

In Virginia, this movement largely has been focused in Loudoun County over critical race theory and the suspension of a teacher who disagreed with a policy about transgender students, as well as potential changes to math courses, which state officials say are far from being adopted, and new standards for social-emotional learning.

CARE petition

More than 300 people have signed a petition seeking to pause the implementation of Courageous Conversations lessons at Henley Middle School to allow for a review and evidence-based analysis of the program, surveys and a public discussion.

In the petition, parents wrote that they support a learning environment free from discrimination, hate, exclusion and bullying of any kind.

“We are concerned about the new Courageous Conversations program being piloted at Henley Middle School, and whether it is the right way to achieve the above goals we are all united in supporting,” according to the petition.

Parents also criticized the rollout of the lessons as lacking transparency and communication, and questioned the level of teachers’ preparedness to lead the discussions.

“What’s the rush on this program?” asked Christy Cormons, a parent of two elementary students, at last week’s School Board meeting. “What’s the big secret? Nothing is gained by rushing. Slow down, press pause and be transparent with parents.”

Matt Mierzejewski, parent of a Henley eighth-grader, is part of Citizens Advocating for Responsible Education, the group opposed to the lessons. In an interview, he said he first became concerned about the lessons when he learned they would include conversations about identity, sexual orientation and gender. He and his wife pulled their son out of the class after the first lesson.

“Part of the issue that I have in some of the curriculum is that it is absolutely imposing a belief system as opposed to presenting different belief systems,” Mierzejewski said. “What we asked of the administration at Henley is, let’s present all sides for inclusion here. Let’s present the fact that some religions and beliefs say that there are only two genders. This is a widely held belief; this is not a radical thought.”

Additionally, he said the school setting is an inappropriate place for the questions and class discussion “without trained professionals, either monitoring or facilitating these conversations.”

To Mierzejewski, trained professionals would mean that the right people have had the time to understand and manage the content and potential for student conversations before the rollout.

He said parents didn’t have enough information or time to digest the lessons and what their students would be talking about. As an example of how the process should have worked, he pointed to the division’s approach to sex education, in which parents can review the materials and opt out.

Costa, the school’s principal, said parents could opt out of the anti-bias lessons, and that no more than 20 did. Henley has about 885 students this year.

More broadly, Mierzejewski is taking issue with the anti-bias policy and how the division wants to go about becoming more equitable. The division has highlighted its plans through discussion of the policy, publication of annual reports and related presentations at School Board meetings over the last couple of years.

“There’s an admission from a lot of parents that we haven’t been as involved as we needed to be in the understanding and/or pushback on these changes to the mission,” Mierzejewski said. “However, a lot of parents and community members are now waking up.”

Mierzejewski added that he and other parents want positive change and do not want discrimination.

“The mechanisms to get there are what we need to now discuss and agree to,” he said.

Mechanisms he would support include those that respect parental rights, provide teachers with the proper training and time and offer a safe learning environment. He said natural conversations about race, bias and other topics most likely will come up in other subjects, and that’s fine, as long as teachers are properly trained.

“But there has to be a place for every student’s voice to be included,” Mierzejewski said. “And that includes, as an example, someone who believes that there are only two genders, male or female. That is a belief system that my child subscribes to, and that he should not feel intimidated, unsafe, or discriminated against because of that belief and position.”

His son has experienced discrimination in the school, he said, declining to provide further details.

His wife, Marie Mierzejewski, said at the May 27 board meeting that as a Catholic, the message to her son has been to keep his head down and shut up because his opinions aren’t welcomed in the school.

“When did public schools truthfully only become welcoming if you’re a Democrat?” she asked. “That’s honestly what it’s come down to — feeling that if you have conservative values, you are really unwelcome to express them at the school, and that you’ll get ostracized. And that’s already been happening to my son for saying to people he believes in male and female.”

Support for CCAR

About 700 students, teachers, administrators, parents and community members have signed a petition calling for the Albemarle school division to continue the lessons and implement the anti-racism policy, to adopt policies to protect transgender students and support a curriculum that’s inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community.

“I want to make it very clear that this school is in no way teaching us that white people are bad,” said Madalyn Benedict, an eighth-grader at Henley. “The only purpose is to bring awareness to these kinds of issues. For those of you who think that the county is pushing a political agenda or narrative: The idea that being anti-racist is somehow an attack on your political or religious views because it promotes being against bigotry is disgusting.”

Madalyn was one of several students who spoke in support of the lessons at Thursday’s board meeting. Mary Govan, a student at Albemarle High School, said that growing up in the county’s western feeder pattern, many of her classmates were white and some teachers would confuse her with the only other Asian American child in her grade. She said the anti-racism policy and lessons might make the schools more welcoming for people who aren’t in the majority.

“Tonight, I am listening to a lot of adults who are scared of having students and teachers talk about race and identity, but as an Asian American, I can’t escape these topics,” Govan said. “And I need my teachers and peers to know how to have those conversations with me when I’m around, and feel safe having them.”

Julie Govan, Mary’s mother, and Scott Guggenheimer, a Henley parent, are the justice, equity, diversity and inclusion volunteers with Henley’s parent and teacher support organization and helped to write the petition as a way to express public support for the county and school.

Guggenheimer said he’s sympathetic to people with whom the policy or lessons don’t resonate.

“I certainly like the idea of a school system that is trying to figure out how to create the conditions in which every single student can thrive,” he said. “And certainly, as a dad, I like the idea that my child and my children would be able to have conversations about identity across the curriculum. … That would be a good learning experience for my kiddos, and hopefully would help build sustained positive relationships for children, regardless of identity, background or circumstances.”

Govan said as a parent of several children of color, she has seen how different groups of students have different experiences in the school system.

“I’m really in support of what Albemarle County is doing here because I think that they’re making it so that the standard for the school community is to be welcoming to and respectful to every single student,” she said, speaking as a parent and not on behalf of the parent-teacher organization. “… to me, that’s impossible to gainsay the value of.”

For Govan’s children at Henley, the lessons themselves haven’t registered as anything particularly different from other conversations that come up in the Advisory block.

“Teachers have an almost magical ability to manage all the most complicated human things that happen to humans when they bubble up in their classrooms,” she said. “And if this just gives them some additional tools and permission for supporting kids as they have conversations, to me, that’s absolutely worthwhile. I’m never delighted that there’s controversy but I’m delighted that people are digging into what does this mean for us as a school district.”

Years-long effort

The lessons are part of a years-long, multi-faceted effort to eliminate racism in the school division and improve outcomes for students who have historically lagged behind their white, more affluent peers. The efforts include adopting the anti-racism policy, training teachers on culturally responsive teaching practices, changing discipline policies, updating the history curriculum and ending the use of school resource officers.

“We have crafted the anti-racism policy for a reason,” School Board member Kate Acuff said at last week’s meeting. “The reason is that racism in our schools does interfere with our academic mission.”

The division’s equity reports released in 2016 and 2019 highlighted achievement and opportunity gaps among student groups, as well as disparities in discipline, gifted education participation and enrollment in advanced courses.

In the 2018-19 school year, about 86% of white students passed the reading tests, compared with 54% of Black students, 55% of Hispanic students and 53% of economically disadvantaged students. That’s the most recent state data available because the pandemic canceled testing last year.

Board members have said the schools are not teaching critical race theory, which is an academic framework that argues racism is embedded in legal systems and policies, according to Education Week.

The unanimous vote to adopt the anti-racism policy wrapped up a seven-month process of public meetings and work sessions that stemmed from conversations about the division’s dress code and banning symbols relating to the Confederacy and white supremacy. During that process, most — if not all — of the public feedback was that the policy didn’t go far enough.

The policy establishes reporting requirements on disciplinary actions and racial disparities throughout the division. It also mandates anti-racism training for staff and a more transparent process for class recommendations. Division staff have identified 27 action items from the policy and developed a multi-step plan for implementing the different parts.

Amanda Moxham, a parent with the Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County, said at Thursday’s meeting that the parent pushback resulted from the division’s inability to engage the community.

“You reap what you sow,” she said. “Because [Albemarle County Public Schools] is not fully and authentically grounded in intersectional anti-racist work, the rights of Black, Indigenous and people of color, as well as LGBTQ+ students and educators is at risk. It’s time to reckon with the ongoing coddling of racist white families in this school system.”

At the end of the meeting, board members said they want to know more about the lessons, how they were developed and what the communication to parents entailed.

“Dr. Costa and her team at the school really did do what we ask our principals to do and what we asked our teachers to do in communicating with families around programming,” schools Superintendent Matt Haas said, noting that there’s always room for improvement.

Costa discussed the plan for the lessons with parents during monthly town halls since January, according to a review of her presentations. The pandemic delayed the implementation by a few months.

Costa said in an interview that middle-schoolers are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in, and lessons like Courageous Conversations help them learn about themselves and gain a better awareness of one another.

“These conversations can be challenging for adults, and so practicing them on a smaller scale in a safe space early on only can make that foundation for their continued ability to have these kinds of conversations with others later on,” Costa said.

She added that all the parent feedback is valuable and had been used to tweak the some of the lessons.


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