1 Parent Complaint Suspends High School's Social Justice Curriculum?
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The following piece was originally published by Anna Minard on The Stranger's website 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.