Updated Sept. 19, 11:12 p.m. with additional, clarifying comments from Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker.
Updated Sept. 19, 9: 35 p.m. with a clarification from Madhu Pai.
Updated 2:58 p.m. with response from Walter Fields of the SOMA Black Parents Workshop.
During Monday night’s South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education monthly meeting, 2nd Vice President and board member Madhu Pai attempted to quell what was developing into a testy exchange during the presentation of the newly revised Social Studies curriculum for grades 6-8.
Pai said she hoped that the testy dialogue wouldn’t result in an “incendiary headline in the press tomorrow.”
Christopher Preston, Supervisor of Social Studies, K-12, had completed his presentation and the Board was responding to the new curriculum. Board Member Johanna Wright asked Preston if the team that wrote the curriculum included an African-American writer.
“No,” answered Preston. However, he said that all Social Studies faculty members were involved in the curriculum development before the writing process began, and, therefore, the ideas and responses of African-American faculty members were ultimately part of the material that was used by those who wrote the curriculum.
“I don’t know anyone who is sitting in this horseshoe [the board member seating area] who is happy about this,” said Wright. She expressed her frustration and asked why an African-American writer was not selected.
Preston explained that those who authored the document had expressed interest in doing so and that they took the feedback of all curriculum developers into account. Wright said she believed that an African-American faculty member should have been sought out for the writing process.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say you have to have an author to be someone of color to manifest the learnings you’d want to instill on our children,” said Board Member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad. She explained that this particular conversation has come up with her husband Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy at Harvard University.
“You need to stop cutting me off,” Wright later said to Board President Elizabeth Baker, who was calling on other Board members requesting to speak on the matter.
Baker was explaining that the Board of Education conducts its public meetings in accordance with Board Bylaws and Robert’s Rules of Order which its Bylaws adopt. “One practice which we seek to adhere to is to ensure that all members have equal opportunity to speak,” wrote Baker in a followup email, “and in furtherance of this goal, for each speaker to be recognized by the presiding officer. The goal of these practices is to ensure a fair and respectful discussion, and to be viewpoint neutral.”
Baker added, “As President and the presiding officer at each public meeting, I endeavor to apply these rules fairly irrespective of whether I agree with the speaker or not. While I actually agreed with Ms. Wright in several respects, as presiding officer, I am obligated both to ensure that other members had an opportunity to participate equally in the discussion and recognize their requests to speak.”
Wright referenced the elementary school slave auction and poster incidents of last March, the flashpoint which has brought renewed attention to the district’s Social Studies curriculum.
Pai also reached out to The Village Green to provide a clarification of her comments:
“I just want to point out that I was not trying to quell the situation to avoid a negative headline…but more to clear up misperception and inform the public of the actual process behind staff engagement in the curriculum revisions. Given the way uncorroborated assertions become facts in this district, I personally no longer feel comfortable letting such assertions be made in public without verifying whether they are factually true. That is why I asked Mr. Preston, several times, to clarify the process around how the curriculum was written. He explained that he asks (vs. assigns) staff to engage in curriculum writing, and that the staff engages in the best way they can based on their other obligations. He confirmed that the opportunity to engage in the grades 6-8 Social Studies curriculum revisions was open to all Social Studies teaching staff and no one was excluded from their desire to participate. The implication that AA teachers were excluded from the curriculum revisions or did not weigh in is simply untrue based on what Mr. Preston said.”
At the August Board of Education meeting, Asst. Superintendent of Curriculum Dr. Susan Grierson said that the K-5 curriculum was being revised this year for implementation in 2018-2019.
Also in August, Grierson assured Board members that adjustments had been made to the K-5 curriculum in the short term and that the elementary social studies supervisor was reviewing a unit by unit overview for grades 3-5, paying particular attention to two units — one on slavery and one on immigration. “Emphasizing what not to cover will be very useful,” said Grierson.
(Read our coverage of Grierson’s presentation and that of Dr. Gayle Griffin of the NAACP Oranges & Maplewood chapter here.)
In addition, Walter Fields of the SOMA Black Parents Workshop wrote to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Ficarra following the August Board of Education meeting, saying the Workshop “takes exception” to the revised curriculum. “This process was conducted entirely in secrecy, with teachers left in the dark,” Fields wrote. “It is in keeping with the lack of transparency current Board leadership has demonstrated on critical issues.”
In response, Ficarra wrote, “In answer to my preliminary inquiry as to why the district chose to revise the curriculum for grades 6-8 first, I have been informed that our original curriculum revision timeline called for the social studies curriculum for grades 6-8 to be revised this past year in preparation for implementation in 2017-2018. This schedule was already predetermined and work was underway at the time concerns surfaced with the 5th grade unit on Colonial America this past Spring. Further inquiries assured me that the 5th grade social studies assignment which raised community concerns is being revised before the Colonial America unit is offered in Spring 2018.”
Fields met with Ficarra before the start of school.
In response to an email inquiry today, Fields said that he and Ficarra “did meet, and he confirmed that the consultant used was not paid. It raised further questions as to why a qualified consultant was not contracted for something as important as a curriculum overhaul.” Fields also said that it was “a blatant lie” that community groups were engaged in the process. “We have asked around and no one from the several groups that are active in local education issues was involved. We are still waiting to hear how it was decided which, if any, community groups were asked to be involved.”
Fields continued, “We have learned that there were only two district personnel at the state Amistad Summer Institute, and neither of those individuals were involved in the curriculum redesign. In addition, it is our understanding that there were no African-American teachers involved in the redesign.”
“We also don’t buy that since this process was underway, the district could not have suspended it and worked first on the K-5 curriculum,” said Fields. “Our issue is not with Dr, Ficarra, it is with Assistant Superintendent Grierson and the Board leadership.”
View and download the updated Grades 6-8 Social Studies curriculum below.
Village Green will continue to follow this story.