A Cheshire college English unit on books dealing with ‘social justice’ topics such as racism, violence and other politically charged topics has led several parents to express serious concerns about their inclusion in the program .
The topic was first raised at the Education Council’s Oct. 6 Open Forum meeting, where a contingent of parents turned up at the event to voice their objections to the material. Then, only about 15 minutes into the October 20 meeting of the Education Council, members of the public began to take to the podium to voice their concerns again.
Board Chair Tony Perugini began by reading the Education Board’s Public Comment Policy, but, as with the previous comment on the matter, the speech remained moderate and respectful.
As Perugini noted, “I felt (the open forum meeting) was a classic example of how this town can come together and have a great discussion about uncomfortable topics without yelling at each other,” adding that It was important to hear “from all facets of people’s stance on things.
First responder Sharon Houck came prepared with a written statement. She prefaced her comments by praising the city of Cheshire in general and saying its “education system is exceptional”. Nonetheless, she had serious reservations about “a woke program” and her “corrosive take” on the program. She objected to two books in particular.
The young adult novel, “Ghost Boys,” by author Jewell Parker Rhodes, is problematic, according to Houck, due to the death of the title character at the hands of fictional police officers. The protagonist then encounters the ghost of Emmett Till, the real-life black child who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955.
“Books portraying the police as the enemy only serve to sow distrust in those we rely on for the protection of all our citizens,” she said. Houck asked the Board to consider deleting the program text.
A second book, “Boy21” by Matthew Quick, author of “Silver Linings Playbook” among others, portrays the Irish mafia. Houck felt it was “inappropriate” for the age group in question, namely 11-12 year olds, due to its high school setting.
“Cheshire is becoming increasingly diverse in ethnicity, and this trend will and is expected to continue,” Houck continued. “These books deal with controversial subjects, not always pretty. I would venture to guess that not everyone in this room tonight would ever dream of treating another human being the way these books portray them. We tackle the crusts of these problems.
Houck praised the district’s addition of two books to the curriculum that “celebrate the positive side of life.”
A second speaker, Alicia Heapy, attempted to counter some of these concerns. She said that no matter how good Cheshire’s quality of life is, she wants her children to see themselves as ‘citizens of the whole world’, who are ‘introduced to matters of worldwide significance’. She spoke out in favor of balance and “making sure that when (the reading list change) happens, it doesn’t disrupt the existing lesson plan and curriculum and things like that.”
Another parent, Stephanie Calo, introduced herself as the wife of a police officer and said her son was “very vocal” in expressing his discomfort with some of the books. Her son’s teacher, Calo, said: “She respected him and did it well. They offered a few other book options for my child and other students. »
However, she argued that topics such as ‘critical race theory and discrimination’ should be discussed at home ‘at the parents’ discretion’.
Perugini ended the public comment portion by saying “we welcome public comment. This is how we learn, this is how we reconcile school district feedback and take meaningful action to address these issues.
Board member Faith Ham, who chairs the curriculum committee, defended the teachers’ book choices and provided supporting documentation to the board.
“These (books) weren’t chosen at random,” Ham said. “We won’t make everyone happy in the community, but there was a method in the selection process.”
The teachers, Ham said, “voluntarily compelled” the expansion of the list to include “uplifting” texts. She pointed to the awards the books have won as well as the unit’s learning objectives to highlight the fact that teachers carefully considered their selections.
Board member Anne Harrigan, who is also on the curriculum committee, echoed Ham’s sentiments. She said the result of the meetings is that all board members, when talking to parents, “can be very sure that when the curriculum is chosen in Cheshire state schools, there is a lot behind it. It is not information that is simply thrown together willy-nilly. They are professionals — teachers, administrators. It is important to have this transparency in the process.