Kutztown parents remained critical of the revised educational equity policy and spoke out against Critical Race Theory during the nearly three-hour long school board meeting on July 19.
Board member Dennis Ritter presented the first reading of the revised Educational Equity Policy 809 as a replacement for suspended equity policy 832. With a 7 to 2 vote, the board sent Policy 809 to the Policy and Curriculum Committee for a first reading and further discussion.
Upon recommendation of the Administration, the Board repealed Policy 832 with a 6 to 3 vote. Board members Al Darion and Caecilia Holt did not want to repeal until a replacement policy is ready.
“The recommendation from the administration is intended to help support a path forward that includes the collaborative process including various stakeholders to operationalize a board definition of equity of opportunity,” said Superintendent Christian Temchatin. “In hind sight, we regret the announcements at the elementary level. You can be assured that announcements will not be used in this manner in the future."
“We believe 100 percent that we will be a stronger community as a result of the dialogue that has occurred and will continue to occur,” he added.
Ritter said the revised policy puts the board on record as being committed to providing an equitable education system that reflects the principles of fairness and justice for all students.
“I want you to know that the board has been listening to you,” said Ritter. “We are trying to move forward in a way that will be beneficial for our students and for our community.”
This has been a very divisive time in the district, he said.
“This policy talks about how we will work to strive to create a welcoming, inclusive and bias-free culture and environment that values, reflects and is responsive to the diversity of the students, their families and the community.”
The policy states that the equitable treatment of students, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, gender identity and expression, socioeconomic status, English learner status, disability and other characteristics, as well as the intersection of those characteristics, is a legal and moral imperative.
To facilitate educational equity for all, the district will identify and address barriers that cultivate achievement and/or opportunity gaps for students ensuring that educational achievement is neither predicted nor predetermined by explicit or implicit biases. The policy also establishes and sustains a school community that shares the collective responsibility to address, eliminate and prevent actions, decisions and outcomes that result from and perpetuate discrimination in any form, implicit or accepted, according to the policy.
“This policy is an umbrella type policy,” said Ritter. “There are 32 references to various policies scattered throughout our policy manual that deal with aspects of educational equity. They all become now, put into this package in 800 some sections, a priority in a way that they maybe were not before.”
A committee composed of three teachers, three staff (para educators, support staff, custodial and coaches), three students, two board members and four members of the community will regularly report to the school board. The board has the final say in the approval of members and length of service. Other members of administration and external experts will serve in an advisory capacity as needed.
“It would be my understanding that this committee would replace the Equity Team and finally reach what I had hoped that equity team would be, which is a full, true representation of our community,” said Ritter. “This also would be now a board committee so there would be accountability and lines of communication established around its existence.”
Several community members criticized that the proposed committee does not include parent representation.
The policy also defines “equity.”
“We’ve had a lot of comments and mistaken ideas about equity as being an outcome. That’s not what this policy says,” said Ritter. “Equity is an input. It is at the beginning that we provide kinds of resources, opportunities and the overall treatment of students based upon each individual student’s needs so that each student can achieve her or his full potential.”
“It requires the student participating and doing all that he or she can do to be the best student they can be,” he added.
The district will not eliminate the tradition of selecting a salutatorian and valedictorian.
“That’s not what this is about,” said Ritter. “You’ll see in the policy that there is a continuing call for excellence and challenging students to do their very best and to achieve at a very high level.”
Ritter said the policy addresses access to equitable resources.
“It is a beginning that we’re focused on, not an end or an outcome. Equity here, clearly through the whole of this policy, deals with input.”
Connor O’Neil of Greenwich Township presented a petition signed by 140 district residents in support of educational equity and all related initiatives that respect and uplift students, assists individual students to reach their full potential and promotes tolerance acceptance and inclusion within the school communities and the wider world.
Many questioned the need for the policy with one person stating there are not many benefits but many potential harms.
Others complained that the policy does not officially cut ties with Critical Race Theory. One said that the term “equity” is the vehicle for CRT.
Jackie Bridges of Kutztown, chapter chair of Moms for Liberty Berks County, spoke “for the parents who are afraid to voice their opinion in public in fears that their children will face retaliation from certain teachers and peers.”
Bridges questioned why the ban of CRT from ever being taught in school was defeated by a 6 to 3 vote.
“It will never be beneficial to your students. It does the opposite of what supports claim CRT is about and instead creates more racial division.”
Instead, it should be called Creating Racial Tension, she said.
Bridges also called on the board to provide transparency and accountability to begin to heal the relationship between parents and the school administration, board and teachers and begin to rebuild trust. She also requested that curriculum be more accessible to parents.
“Public education should be a partnership. The only way this partnership thrives is if it’s balanced. When the school and board begin to see itself as a majority partner, parental rights inevitably suffer. My parental rights do not end at the classroom door. What happens behind classroom doors is my business,” said Bridges. “I am putting my trust six hours a day five days a week in the hands of teachers whom my children look up to so what they say and what they teach clearly makes an impact. Biased political views should not be coming out of the mouths and curriculum or hidden curriculum of teachers.”
“Where is the accountability and how will you stop this from continuing?” she questioned.
Ron Zimmerman of Maxatawny is concerned that the revised policy is still CRT in disguise.
“In order to have success, you must have a united effort by the parents, the community, the teachers and administration. The united effort does not come from dividing people. It comes from building people on their strengths, not by pointing out their differences,” said Zimmerman. “CRT has divided this community, the school.”
Zimmerman questioned who the board represents, the children and their parents or their own personal agendas.
“Stop trying to play politics with our kids as the pawns. Please put the focus back on creating a positive environment for our kids… You are here to unite us, not divide us. Your job is to educate, not indoctrinate.”
Lori Zimmerman of Maxatawny said there has been county-wide attention on Kutztown School District, “Shame on us, as a school district, for creating an environment such as this through lack of transparency, communication and accountability. We will be watched on this issue from everywhere and this is going to create a tense environment for all interested parties.”
She believes this was initially a political policy, cautioning that anything political is not always as it appears.
“Stop creating an environment bringing attention to racism and sexism when many children just want to play and get along with others. Social values should be taught at home. We have now put our school district in the spotlight and not in a positive way.”
Former board member Carl Ziegler of Kutztown believes the policy is a solution looking for a problem and emphasized that policy process does matter. “You needed to investigate whether or not there was in fact an inequitable environment within the school district.”
Robyn Underwood of Kutztown encouraged the board to schedule a meeting with the community to discuss the policy further.
“We need to heal the community and get more input from us other than us just coming here and talking at you. It’d be much better if it was back and forth.”
SCHOOL BOARD COMMENTS
Al Darion agreed with public comments that their job is to educate, not indoctrinate.
“What goes on in the classroom needs to be a presentation of facts. It needs to be an open discussion. Controversy is the best motivator I can think of for having a good conversation in a classroom but it has to be respectful,” said Darion. “It has to allow all opinions to exist and I’ve heard complaints that perhaps that’s not what’s going on in our classrooms. If we’re going to teach racial history with total historical accuracy – because I know that’s not the education I got – now we run into other problems. One person’s historical fact is someone else’s ideological construct. These all need to be resolved, these controversies, in some way.”
Darion believes this policy will need administrative regulation that will adjudicate differences as far as whether it’s indoctrination or education. He said it should also very clearly state the role of a teacher’s opinion in a classroom that would allow for disagreement.
Charles Shurr suggested they form the committee first to help develop the policy.
Darion said that a committee of this size might have great difficulty writing a policy.
“Overseeing how it’s implemented, certainly, that’s when you want all of that diverse viewpoint,” said Darion. “It’s a board policy; I think that’s our responsibility to do what we think is best so I don’t think a committee should develop a policy.”
Shurr disagreed, saying it is time to reach beyond the nine board members for assistance in developing policies and procedures.
“This is one of those times that it’s important to draw in some additional input into the process,” said Shurr. “I think process matters as we talk about building trust with our community.”
Caecilia Holt said having a committee that oversees the equity action plan makes sense but did not see the sense of it developing the policy when the Policy and Curriculum Committee does this.
Michelle R. Batz said there is merit in bringing voices together.
Darion added that the public will have an opportunity to express their opinions at meetings.
“We’ve been elected to do a job; it is our responsibility to do that job,” Darion said. “We certainly need assistance and input from the community in doing it but the final responsibility is ours.”
Batz said there is much work yet to be done, “Dialogue absolutely must continue and be inclusive of the community voices.”