GUILFORD — A group of local parents presented a petition in support of the current Board of Education and spoke in favor of the district’s efforts to increase diversity in the school curriculum.
According to Rachel Daniels, a Guilford parent who read the petition at a Board of Education meeting on Monday night, the document received 1,178 signatures.
“We teach our kids to be honest, courageous, and kind. We expect our schools to impart lessons consistent with those values: honesty about who we are, integrity in how we treat others, and the courage to do what’s right,” the petition reads. “We support age-appropriate lessons that improve outcomes for our kids by preparing them for success after high school in a diverse, complex, and multicultural world.”
Daniels, along with two other parents, read comments that parents, grandmothers, recent graduates and current students added to the petition. Some Guilford parents also shared personal stories with the board.
Kristine Ford, who graduated from Guilford Public Schools in 1997, said she felt she had received an excellent education, with one exception.
“I did not know the words Juneteenth, redlining, sundown towns. I really thought slavery was something that only happened in the South,” she said. “All I knew was my own experience. I wasn’t pushed to consider how different it might be from others. I want better for my children.”
Nuria Miller, who has a daughter in 8th grade, spoke about her experience as a Latina woman. She said that she often felt “outnumbered” because there were so few Latinos in Guilford.
“Kids try to be funny, and sometimes adults try to be funny, and they think that comments that they make to you are funny,” she said. “And sometimes they really aren’t … so I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with teaching our kids about history.”
Bob Harrington, who has an 8-year-old at A.W. Cox elementary school said that his wife and his wife’s family, who are not white, have been affected by things that he, as a white man, is “insulated from.”
“Through her eyes and the eyes of my in-laws, I have personally seen the reasons why we need the equity and social justice initiatives that the Board of Ed has put forward,” he said.
Two parents also praised the Witness Stones Project, in which students learn about the lives of individual slaves who lived in Guilford.
“The conversations that we had in that program within my own family were just incredible,” said Barb Hargraves, who has two children, one of whom just graduated from Middle School. “I would like to see more programs like this.”
“The minority opinion counts”
Not everyone at the meeting was in favor of the initiative. One attendee, Kendall Svengalis, president of New England LawPress and a former professor of law librarianship, said that while he supported the teaching of history in its entirety, he was concerned about how political the conversation had become.
“What concerns me is the politicization of education,” he said. “I don’t want to see one side presented, because it’s very nuanced.”
He said that rather than buying only books by left-leaning individuals like Ibram X. Kendi to distribute to the staff, he thought the district should be presenting a wider variety of opinions on racism and critical race theory, including right-leaning thinkers and writers.
“[The faculty] should be hearing both sides,” he said. “It’s a very nuanced and complex problem.”
Bill Maisano, Danielle Scarpellino and Tim Chamberlain, all Republican candidates for the Board of Education, also spoke against the initiative.
Maisano said he felt the district was infringing on his right as a parent to impart to his children the values that were important to him.
“When it comes to issues about morality, that is the job of a parent,” said Maisano. “Let me teach my kids in the way I see fit … . I don’t send them to school to get morality. I do that myself.”
Chamberlain said that there was no representation in the schools for children who don’t agree with the “majority” views on the way history should be taught.
“How can you ensure safety and freedom of speech and the freedom of ideas of the kids who disagree with yourselves?” Chamberlain said. “The minority opinion counts. Those students have just as much right to an education as the liberal majority. Their side is unrepresented entirely in what you’ve given to your coaches, to your administration and to your teachers. That concerns me greatly, as a parent.”
Scarpellino expressed concerns regarding negative effects that the proposed teaching about racism could have on the children in the schools.
“It’s either you agree with what the Board of Education is doing and what Dr. Freeman is pushing forth, or you are a racist,” she said.
“Please continue down that path”
Guilford Superintendent Paul Freeman told CT Examiner that he was “enormously appreciative” of the people who signed the petition in support of the district’s equity and social justice work. He also said that he “wasn’t surprised” by the outpouring.
“The board and I have been hearing from students, recent graduates, parents and the broader community, for years, that they value and expect this work,” said Freeman. “We continue to strive towards school environments that are equitable and inclusive, texts and materials that are diverse and representative of all peoples, and instructional practices that are culturally responsive and sustaining.”
Kathleen Balestracci, the board chair, said that it was “wonderful” to have so many community members at the meeting.
“We really have received ongoing support from a good deal of the community,” Balestracci told CT Examiner. “Certainly to see all those folks in the room last night was very much appreciated.”
Balustracci said the turnout, which she described as “standing room only” was in line with a “steady flow of communications” that the Board of Education and Dr. Freeman received in support for their work.
However, Balustracci also told CT Examiner that she was concerned that some people are “mischaracterizing” or “misunderstanding” the board’s efforts to bring social equity into the curriculum.
“They believe we are indoctrinating students and that is just false, this work is not about blaming students based on race or victimizing students based on race in any way,” said Balestracci. “This work is about providing a breadth of understanding about history, and encouraging and supporting students to learn about that history and think carefully and critically.”
One current Guilford High School student said at the meeting that learning about systemic racism and having a diverse curriculum was necessary to prepare students for the world.
“It is our commitment to racial justice work that makes us strong and characterizes American spirit. And if the truth makes you uncomfortable, that doesn’t give you a pass to deny it,” she said.
She thanked the board for their efforts and urged them to continue what they were doing.
“I’m so proud of the progress we have made this past year … I say we don’t let that progress be reversed. I say we continue to be culturally responsive,” she said. “I’m proud of these members of the Board of Education who have dedicated time, especially this past year, to create a more inclusive and an anti-racist school environment. Please continue down that path.”
Banner photo credit: Google Map Data, 2021.