A new curriculum addressing issues of racial and gender equity was piloted for all grades at Henley Middle School this spring, and its content has galvanized both supporters and detractors among the school’s parent population. Spurred by the national unrest following George Floyd’s death last summer, and impelled by the county school division’s anti-racism policy and Virginia’s new LGBTQIA+ inclusion requirements, the program was built as a model for all county middle schools to use beginning this fall.
Henley’s “Courageous Conversations About Race” [CCAR] program was launched during the students’ Advisory period over the course of several weeks in May and June and encompassed four units covering topics such as identity, community, bias, discrimination, and social justice, with an emphasis on anti-racism as a unifying theme for eighth graders. Parents have attended recent school board meetings in droves to express their satisfaction or displeasure with the lessons.
While many parents, teachers, and students are pleased with CCAR thus far, others are concerned about an ideology called Critical Race Theory (CRT) that undergirds and informs anti-racism training, and which has been hotly debated in school systems across the country in recent months. Bills banning CRT-related topics from being taught in public schools have passed in five states and have been introduced in 17 more, as CRT has become a kind of shorthand for anti-racism curricula.
What is CRT?
Critical Race Theory is an extension of Critical Theory, which was developed in the 1930s by German Marxist thinkers to describe a framework that examines how wealthy and powerful institutions profit at the expense of the poor and marginalized. Originally used to motivate revolution among workers oppressed by their overseers, Critical Theory was expanded by legal scholars in the 1980s to include issues of race. Modern-day CRT posits that a class of mainly (European-descended) white peoples has organized society in the U.S. to exploit others and benefit themselves to the detriment of non-whites. As such, any racial imbalance in outcomes (e.g., educational achievement, law enforcement, social standing) is said to be the result of racism and discrimination.
“Anti-racism” is a mandate that flows from CRT—a call to action that dismisses the civil-rights-era aspiration to be “not racist” and instead requires active participation in reforming society and tearing down oppressive systems and structures. Ibram X. Kendi, the nation’s leading advocate of the activist path and author of the book How to Be an Antiracist, says that a person’s intent is irrelevant—only the effects of actions matter—so that inaction against a racist policy is also racist. Kendi argues in his writings that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.”
While Critical Race Theory itself (as a legal and philosophical model) is not being taught at Henley, CRT’s “oppressive system” framing motivates the anti-racist activism that is integral to Henley’s program. CRT is the “why” to anti-racism’s “how,” and learning to define anti-racism and to become an anti-racist person are explicit goals of the lessons.
“After the death of George Floyd last summer, we [teachers and staff] wanted to make space and not shy away from talking with kids about these issues,” said Henley principal Beth Costa. “We had used the Courageous Conversations initiative from [racial sensitivity trainer and outside consultant] Glenn Singleton among our staff, and throughout the school year our diversity resource teachers worked with their colleagues at the other middle schools to develop racism Advisory lessons.” (Advisory is Henley’s homeroom/sharing time.)
Costa said she gave families updates on the program’s progress at every PTO and “Coffee with Costa” parent meeting during the winter and spring. “By April, the eighth-grade curriculum was ready, but it wasn’t appropriate for the younger grades, so I ended up writing the sixth and seventh grade curriculum myself,” she said.
The sixth and seventh grade curricula introduce and discuss concepts of identity, community, inclusion, culture, bias, prejudice, discrimination, and social justice, while the eighth-grade materials guide conversations about dominant culture, white privilege, and racism and anti-racist action. Many slides ask open-ended questions—What is bias? What is privilege?—interspersed with video clips, so the tenor of each class conversation relies heavily on how the teacher chooses to frame the issues and guide the discussion.
(The CCAR slides for all units can be found on the Henley website under the “Parents” tab.)
As the lessons began at Henley, parents began to raise questions about several aspects of the plan, including the way it was rolled out, the resources used to create it, and the choice of content to include.
Some parents were surprised to hear that the CCAR course had been launched late in the school year and that they had not been given an opportunity to preview the slides and other materials (as they have been for other sensitive topics such as Family Life Education). “We had never really shared Advisory lessons in the past, so I didn’t make that leap,” said Costa. While some of the sixth and seventh grade slides were posted on Henley’s website, the curriculum for eighth graders was not posted until the course was over in June, despite multiple parent requests.
Other questions were raised about which texts were used to develop the CCAR curriculum. “I sent out the ‘scope and sequence’ document with a list of available outside resources at the bottom, and people misunderstood that as being a bibliography for the lessons,” said Costa. “I did not base my part of the curriculum on those resources.” The list contained books by Ibram Kendi as well as This Book is Antiracist by Tiffany Jewell, which was used as a reference by the Henley staff members who put together the eighth grade curriculum.
Parents also asked whether parts of the lessons’ content were school-appropriate. “One of the slides used the word ‘cisgender,’ and families said it seemed like we were teaching [gender concepts]—that was our first red flag,” said Costa. “We are not teaching gender. An important distinction here is that we’re not teaching, we’re simply facilitating conversations. There’s no glossary of terms or textbook.”
To some parents, however, presenting a curriculum of lessons—accompanied by a list of definitions for terms such as bias, discrimination, and dominant culture (as appears at the beginning of the eighth grade program)—seems like teaching, and they took their concerns to the School Board.
“I would encourage every parent to examine the curriculum slides and to read Glen Singleton’s Courageous Conversations About Race, on which they are based,” said parent Fotini Burns at the June 10 School Board meeting. “One eighth grade slide states that it is racist to say things like ‘we belong to the human race’ and ‘there are two sides to every story.’ Instead of teaching kids to judge people based on their actions and character, this curriculum strips them of their individual identity and lumps them into categories based on the color of their skin, gender, and sexual orientation.”
Singleton received $15,000 from the county for a one-hour, required-attendance presentation to Albemarle teachers and staff in March that was, by contractual provision, not allowed to be recorded. A nationally recognized authority whose agency “develops racially conscious leaders” in various sectors across the U.S., Singleton stresses examining the role of “whiteness” in society and holds that conventions such as scientific, linear thinking and prioritizing written communication are artifacts of white culture.
Supporters of the CCAR curriculum see the lessons as a moral imperative. “We’re faced here with a moral decision, a civil rights decision,” said Jared Govan, father of three children in division schools, “one where we either address our complicated feelings about race, gender and sexuality, and religion for the good of our whole community, or we accept the status quo at the expense of those who are just gaining a voice, for those who have always struggled to be heard.”
A Pitched Battle
Tensions increased in late May and early June, when two articles in the online publication Breitbart denounced Henley’s curriculum and featured anonymous quotes from angry Henley parents as well as quotes that seemed to be attributed to Costa, though she was not contacted for either story. The June 2 article implied that the principal told a student not to use the terms “ma’am” and “sir” when addressing teachers “because it is identifying a gender.” “That happened at another school and they made it sound like it was me,” said Costa. “It was not me.”
Henley parent and former teacher Sarah K. Harris and others moved to support Henley administrators and teachers by circulating an online letter and petition encouraging the School Board to approve the CCAR curriculum for division-wide use and expansion. The letter particularly emphasized LGBTQIA+ rights and pointed to statistics on the heightened risk of suicide and self-harm among transgender youth whose transition is not recognized in school by peers and teachers. The petition garnered more than 700 signatures from county parents, teachers, and students.
Though gender equity plays a smaller role than issues of race in the CCAR materials as currently written, class discussions about gender were a flashpoint for some parents. At the May 27 School Board meeting, Marie Mierzejewski said that her son had been “ostracized” and had received “a terrible email from another student” after he expressed his family’s religious view that there are only two genders. “We have felt very discriminated against for being Catholic,” she said. “The message has been that if you hold that position … then you are not welcome here.”
Harris called that meeting “super eye-opening.” “Hearing the parents during the meeting, I started to feel like they were part of a larger national conversation that didn’t have anything to do with CCAR or Henley or ACPS,” she said. “I wondered, how pervasive are these people’s thoughts? When you say ‘God created male and female,’ where does that leave the people who are non-binary or transgender? It’s one thing to say ‘my religious beliefs are XYZ,’ but that isn’t going to then drive or influence the conversations that are allowed to happen in the classroom.”
Beyond issues of transparency and appropriateness of content, debate has focused more recently on the perceived tone and implications of the curricula. At the June 10 School Board meeting, 15 attendees spoke in favor of the CCAR program and 16 spoke against. Parents in the latter group started their own petition, which had received over 350 signatures by that meeting. The board heard from parents, teachers, and students, and the rhetoric was pointed at times.
“There are people on the right that don’t like this model, and they’re egged on by media outlets that are literally fascist,” said parent and CCAR supporter Nathan Moore. “These people think it’s perfectly fine for some kids to feel unsafe, just not theirs; for some kids to experience discrimination, just not theirs; for some kids to be pushed out of the resources that our society offers, just not theirs. They know they can’t say those things in polite society, so instead they go on and on about process.”
Henley parent Dr. Carlos Ibañez, an immigrant from Central America, described his concerns about “indoctrination” in a letter to the board that was read aloud. His alarm related to slides in the eighth grade curriculum that showed a box representing the “Dominant Culture” surrounded by 24 traits such as “Black,” “Cisgender male,” “Non-Christian folx,” “Neurodiverse,” and “Able-bodied,” and asked students which are inside and which are outside the box. The dominant culture in the U.S. is defined (on a previous slide) as people who are white, middle class, Christian, and cisgender.
“These courageous conversations that want to label my children as victims who are subservient to a privileged or more dominant race are not accurate,” said Ibanez. “Labeling our children as such would be, in our case, racist in nature. The entire concept of placing fault or blame because of race or gender violates the premises of individual rights, equal opportunity, and individual merit that we highly coveted when we came here. We have seen and strongly disagree with the eighth grade modules—forcing those on our child would amount to indoctrination as we know it.”
At an April 22 “Coffee with Costa” online forum, parents asked whether they could opt their child out of the CCAR Advisory lessons. Costa confirmed that they could, though Henley’s Diversity Resource Teacher Chris Booz quickly added that the curriculum will be “woven through all the classes in Albemarle county.” Though about 20 families opted out of the lessons in the spring, Costa herself later signed the pro-CCAR petition, which specifically asks the school board to deny parents the choice to opt their child out.
“No, I don’t think they should opt their child out,” said Costa in mid-June. “I think we can get this to a place where parents agree with their child talking about [these topics]. Racism exists, so [we need to talk about] how do we work against it.”
Measures of Success
County diversity resource teachers will convene this summer to evaluate the CCAR pilot and expand it to all county middle schools for next fall. “A measure of our success will be qualitative, based on the feedback we get from kids,” said Costa. “We’ll look at what they say to questions like ‘Did you learn more about yourself and about each other?’ and ‘Do you understand the terms racism and anti-racism?’”
Many parents have asked for a “pause” in the CCAR lessons process to be allowed input into the content. “Where is the inclusive community discussion, where are the town halls, the surveys and comment periods?” said parent John Bryce. “Why are you excluding the very community you are supposed to serve? We ask that you take a time-out in the rushed rollout of this program to communicate with us transparently, to give us a chance to weigh in on what’s best for our children.”
Costa says she has absorbed the criticism from wary parents and understands their concerns. “Some families tell me that when we say things like ‘white privilege’ or ‘dominant culture’ it makes kids feel bad,” she said. “I get it—I have two white boys. But the part we are trying to clarify is that these things exist. It is not about feeling bad about them, but about understanding that if you are white, it is important to empathize with the person whose experience is drastically different from yours.”
She has also considered the potential for unease among students identified as not part of the dominant culture. “We’ve thought about what it would be like to be the one black student in Advisory talking about these things, and we have reached out to families to ask about this. When we talked to students of color about these lessons, their reaction varied from ‘I can’t wait to tell my story’ to ‘Have you thought about having [separate] Advisories just for students of color?’”
This prospect of increased self-segregation also concerned Crozet parent Sam Parks as he posed hypotheticals to the school board. “Will the students formed by this curriculum be more likely to treat others as unique individuals or instead see others as stand-ins for an identity group?” said Parks. “Will minority students emerge more ennobled and enabled to participate in American civic life or will they have had the expectation reinforced that the odds are stacked against them? Will teaching our white students that their skin color corresponds with privilege and [oppressor status] make them less or more vulnerable to the seductions of white nationalism?”
But others, like Harris, believe that not talking about differences in race and gender gives kids the impression that those topics are taboo. “To teach that we’re all the same, we’re all part of the human race, we’re colorblind—that is sending a really mixed message to children,” she said. “They do see differences, and we’re saying it’s okay to notice them, point them out and celebrate them, and that will lead to a better understanding for these kids than trying not to talk about them.”
Albemarle School Board White Hall District representative David Oberg said he hadn’t heard about the Henley pilot until May when parents began to complain. “I’ve been appalled at the [ad hominem] attacks on board members and teachers, and I wish [parents] could give us a little bit of grace here,” he said. “It seems to me that there are much bigger fish to fry in a post-pandemic educational system—we’re just trying to keep our heads above water. Yes, I was irritated that I couldn’t find the [curriculum] online and I do think some of the slides are more provocative than they need to be, but this curriculum is not teaching that white people are oppressors.”
“Going first and going by ourselves [with the pilot program], of course I was going to make mistakes,” said Costa. “I just hope none of the mistakes were a deal-breaker for the good work that could come out of this pilot. I really want the middle ground—for groups on either side to meet in that perfect spot in the middle where you each feel safe saying what you believe.”
The opening slide for the eighth grade CCAR lessons features a quote by Kendi, which reads in part, “I want us to understand and recognize that our children are either going to learn racist or antiracist ideas. In other words, if we don’t actively protect them from this dangerous racist society, what do you think they will be taught?” For Albemarle county parents, both the premise of and the answer to this question will surely inspire further debate.