Thursday, June 1, 2023

School Board chair: Critical race theory isn’t part of CCPS curriculum


School Board chairman Ryan Harter

Addressing a politically charged topic that has become the latest front in America’s ongoing culture wars, Chairman Ryan Harter said last week the Chesterfield School Board does not support critical race theory and it is not part of the local school system’s approved curriculum.

“In Chesterfield, our goal is unity, not division,” said Harter, a former teacher elected to represent the Matoaca District in 2019, in a prepared statement at the start of the board’s June 1 business meeting. “We focus on including everyone and supporting student achievement and growth.”

Following Harter’s remarks, which were not included in the School Board’s publicly advertised meeting agenda, fellow board member Kathryn Haines offered her own comments.

Haines, who represents the Midlothian District, said she recently received a “crash course” on critical race theory from a friend and conservative scholar and was told it is “not being taught in any K-12 public schools in the United States.”

“The social media narrative on CRT misses the underlying need to engage in discussions about how to teach our kids to think critically and avoid mistakes of the past,” she added. “A critical assessment of history must include multiple perspectives – the full human experience.”

Critical race theory is an academic framework that dates to the 1970s and most commonly is studied in graduate-level college courses. Its central tenet is that racism is systemic, not merely limited to individuals’ bias or prejudice, and remains embedded in the law and other modern institutions.

Advocates say the concept is vital to achieving a fuller understanding of how the legacy of race-based discrimination continues to adversely impact people of color more than 155 years after slavery was formally abolished in the U.S.

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd last May, which sparked protests across the U.S. and a national debate on systemic racism, conservative politicians have branded critical race theory as “divisive” and contend liberal-leaning educators are quietly using it to teach children that America is an inherently racist country.

In recent months, members of Congress and several GOP-controlled state legislatures have moved to ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools.

All four of the top candidates for the Republican Party of Virginia’s gubernatorial nomination, including local legislators Kirk Cox and Amanda Chase, promised to implement the same prohibition if elected in November.

A group of parents in Loudoun County, an affluent D.C. suburb, currently are working to recall all six elected School Board members for allegedly pushing the tenets of CRT in their school system’s new equity initiative.

The issue had largely flown under the radar in Chesterfield, however, until last month. On May 18, the Central Virginia chapter of No Left Turn in Education, a national organization formed to counter what it refers to as the “indoctrination and politicization” of K-12 education, held its kickoff at Independence Golf Club in Midlothian.

Two weeks earlier, in an interview on Richmond’s WRVA-1140, the chapter’s president, Yael Levin Sheldon, called critical race theory “racist” and “highly offensive to people of color.”

“We believe in the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and want to see the principles of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 shine in our schools, instead of teaching kids to group one another into colors, ethnicities and religions and learn to hate each other,” she said.

Sonia Smith, outgoing president of the Chesterfield Education Association, suggested last week that Harter’s remarks were a “pre-emptive strike” intended to allay parents’ fears that critical race theory is being taught in Chesterfield County Public Schools.

School Board member Kathryn Haines

“The optics were absolutely horrible, coming from a white man,” said Smith, who is Black. “He was basically saying, ‘OK white people, there’s no need to fear. We’ve got this.’

“I would have expected the board to take a more neutral position,” she added. “Hearing that from five people who don’t represent the racial makeup of the school division, and for them to be so contrary to something that promotes critical thinking and discussion about what’s really happening in this country, was very disappointing.”

In response to follow-up questions from the Observer, Harter acknowledged “a large number of constituents from all parts of our county” have expressed concerns about critical race theory in recent months.

“It has been one of the top issues we’ve seen across Virginia,” said state Sen. Amanda Chase, claiming critical race theory is “destructive” because it “calls attention to racial differences in a negative way.”

Chesterfield parent Mika’il Petin, who spoke in support of critical race theory at the June 1 School Board meeting, contends it has become a “catch-all phrase” for critics of any equity-related policy initiatives.

Petin, a Meadowbrook High School graduate, moved back to Chesterfield with his family last November after accepting a position as chief of diversity, equity and inclusion for All Hands and Hearts, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that assists communities impacted by natural disasters. His son will enter kindergarten in August.

“If producing active, globally aware and skilled participants in the global economy is the collective goal of this county, please don’t under-prepare our children by opposing any exposure to learning about struggles because of human differences,” he said. “Introducing topics inspired by CRT is not socialism or anti-Americanism. It’s thoughtfully educating the county’s students that everyone should have equal access to rights, power and eventual success. Please be suspicious of anyone who resists that.”

Children of color now represent 54% of total enrollment in the Chesterfield school system, a reflection of increasing diversity in classrooms across the county, state and nation over the past decade. More than a third of the county’s students – about 23,000 – currently qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, a common measure of poverty.

In recognition of the county’s demographic and socioeconomic shifts, former CCPS superintendent (and current state superintendent of public instruction) James Lane formed an equity committee in 2017 with a goal of ensuring all Chesterfield students have access to the same educational opportunities.

Lane’s successor, Merv Daugherty, fulfilled one of the committee’s recommendations when he created an equity office two years later.

“The equity officer, with the authority of the superintendent, basically goes in and tears everything apart in each of our departments and asks, ‘Are we actually being fair? Are we walking the talk? Are we looking at what we’re doing in our practices, policies and procedures to make sure they are fair for all children?’” Daugherty told the county’s Board of Supervisors at a February 2019 work session.

Equity is defined as “the practice of giving every student, according to their strengths and needs, exactly what they need so they are able to learn, experience success and thrive.”

Since then, CCPS also has taken steps to increase access to gifted education and specialty programs, address achievement gaps in reading and math for students of color, improve workforce diversity and implement cultural competence training for staff, in alignment with its strategic plan.

During her remarks last week, Haines quoted a news article in which Cleveland Hayes, associate dean for academic affairs in Indiana University’s School of Education, said principles of critical race theory can be applied to K-12 instruction by using a child’s “lived experiences” to frame curriculum and pedagogy that aligns with state standards.

According to Hayes, “it’s part of recognizing their humanity and capitalizing on the brilliance kids bring to school,” Haines said. “Is that what a majority of Chesterfield County constituents are against? I don’t think so.

“I am more than happy to abandon the term critical race theory because, like my board colleagues, I support unity. But I think it’s important to acknowledge the truth about what it is and what it is not,” she added.

Harter noted the School Board has requested a quarterly list of professional development sessions scheduled within individual CCPS schools and central office. “This process will allow senior staff and the board to review professional development training in advance of implementation,” he said.

Smith rejected the suggestion that critical race theory teaches children to hate each other because of the color of their skin. Based on her experience as a classroom teacher, she recalled “when students learn about something that’s wrong, they want to do everything they can to make it right.”

“As soon as people hear the word ‘race,’ they freak out,” she said. “Can we have an intelligent dialogue about our country’s entire history? No one should be afraid of that.”

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