1 Parent Complaint Suspends High School's Social Justice Curriculum?

Seattle high school postpones students from speaking openly in class about race and gender.

The following piece was originally published by Anna Minard on The Stranger'swebsite here.

It’s not every day that we get news tips from concerned high-school students fighting a curriculum change. But I got a call yesterday from Zak Meyer, a senior at The Center School (the public high school in the Armory at the Seattle Center), wanting to know if I’d heard the rumors about the suspension of his school’s race and social justice curriculum.

Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of the school, and I’d taken the class Meyer was talking about. Rumors were, indeed, racing across social networks and among alumni that something weird was going on. I asked him to fill me in.

Seniors had come in to humanities class on Monday, Meyer told me, and when they started a student-led portion of class where they talk about what happened to them over the weekend and then connect it to what they’re learning, the teacher said he had to shift the conversation away from race or gender. That’s tough, because they’re just finishing up a curriculum unit on race and social justice. Students were baffled. The teacher, Jon Greenberg, couldn’t explain the situation until Friday, when he got an all-clear to talk.

It turns out there was a parent complaint to the district about the class, which resulted in Greenberg, the sole senior humanities teacher, receiving a letter from the superintendent of schools. The letter instructed him to stop teaching two specific units of his humanities curriculum while they were investigated by the district: the race and gender units.

This curriculum was created by Greenberg and much of it has been taught since the school opened a decade ago; it’s an integrated humanities class that teaches language arts and social studies with a heavy social justice focus. There’s a unit on race that involves talking about identity and privilege, and a gender unit that was folded into the curriculum after the tiny high school’s inaugural women’s studies elective was canceled. I can say from personal experience that it’s a powerful class and a highlight of lots of students’ time at the school, a view I’ve heard repeated by current students and more recent alumni.

When I called the district, they seemed wary of the narrative that a popular course was being put on hold because of a single complaint. “We’re not going to ban discussions of racism and social justice,” said Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman Teresa Wippel. “It’s just that if there’s a complaint, we’re supposed to be investigating those kinds of things.” So what exactly happened, here?

“There was a parent complaint that came to us,” says Wippel. The district investigated and decided that “the manner in which the race unit was being taught… created an intimidating educational environment for a particular student,” according to Wippel. An ad hoc committee was formed, comprising the school’s principal, district employees, and a parent from the school. They’ve met with the complainants and the teacher, and will be submitting a recommendation by Monday to Shauna Heath, SPS’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, who will make a final decision on the curriculum—a decision that, Wippel told me, “cannot be appealed.”

Greenberg was hesitant to speak on the record, but he would tell me that he’s never gotten a parent complaint before this year, and he feels that the finding by the district was based on limited evidence—evidence he hasn’t seen. That he was ordered to immediately halt his curriculum “assumes that the materials are objectionable until proven otherwise,” he says, and he's upset that a single family would have the ability to shut down classroom work so swiftly and entirely, without input from any other students or families. He's also concerned that the gender unit was suspended preemptively—it hasn’t been taught yet, so there’s no actual complaint about it. But mainly, he’s focused on his students. And if there's a silver lining here, it's in how the school community, especially students, have responded to the controversy.

Students are rallying in support of the class and their teacher. Meyer, the student who called me, had just come from a lunch meeting of a student organizing committee. Well, “it started out as an organizing committee, but now it spans the entire senior class,” says Meyer. “No one in the senior class wants to see this gone.” They’ve been collecting petitions both physically and online, and contacting the school district and the media. They’re eloquent and composed, a perfect testament to their education in citizenship and rhetoric, which are also elements of the class. And the stories they’re collecting, many on an online petition you can see here, are compelling:

As a student of the first full graduating class at TCS, this curriculum was transformative. It gave me a framework for understanding social justice across different identities and a toolkit for addressing oppression and racism—within myself and in the world as a whole. This curriculum prepared me for the world and made me a better person. It should be taught in every school. —Hannah Peragine (’05)

My older daughter Zoe completed Mr. Greenberg’s incredible class on racism and sexism, and her younger sister is looking forward to the same incredible, life-changing class. This class is shocking for us all; it’s also a college-level class in many respects, but safer in Mr. Greenberg’s capable hands. —Bibiana Powell, Seattle

I am very dismayed at this news. Our son graduated from the Center School last spring, and we were so pleased that the topics we often discussed at the dinner table were being considered in his humanities class. Yes, these are sometimes difficult conversations to have, which makes them all the more important. If some families don’t want their children to participate in that curriculum, they can opt out—for those of us who want this material, how do we make sure we get to opt in? —Sandra Kurtz, Seattle


Anna Minard is a staff writer at The Stranger.