Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Local News

Some Community Members Push Back Against Guilford Schools’ Method of Teaching Racial Justice

A group of Guilford parents are speaking out against what they are claiming is a politically biased and bigoted approach to curriculum by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Freeman and the Guilford Public School system, with two separate petitions calling for Freeman’s firing and an end to teaching “social justice indoctrination” garnering more than 300 total signatures.

Danielle Scarpellino, who created both petitions and has led the push on social media, characterized the material disseminated by the schools as bigoted, saying that it unfairly and illegally targets White people.

In particular, Scarpellino and others have honed in on Freeman’s most recent newsletter, which details the schools approach to “hard history,” and links a TED talk by Ohio State University history professor Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries.

The video, which Scarpellino has claimed is racist, is an approximately 13-minute monologue by Jeffries detailing an experience visiting James Madison’s estate, and encountering stark evidence of how enslaved children suffered to build it.

Jeffries—whose brother U.S. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (D) notably served as an impeachment manager during President Donald Trump’s Senate trial early this year—describes “hard history” as understanding the simultaneous horrors and triumphs of complex people and systems, particularly centered on racism.

The Connecticut State Department of Education has promoted similar resources including linking to the non-profit organization Teaching Tolerance, which utilizes Jeffries’s work.

One of Scarpellino’s petitions explicitly denounces the use of “critical race theory” in Guilford schools, which she claims, without citing evidence, is “harmful to the mental health and well-being of all of our children.”

Critical race theory, which is an academic framework used in multiple disciplines and not its own area of study or ideology, seeks to understand racism as broadly enforced and systemic across multiple areas of society, according to one of its founders, UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Freeman said that there are no explicit references to critical race theory in Guilford’s curriculum, and they are also not directly drawing from The 1619 Project, a collaborative initiative involving The New York Times focused heavily on American history through the lens of slavery that has both won awards and drawn criticism from historians.

But he added that some of the “foundational” principles of Guilford’s teaching do overlap with these broad concepts.

“It’s a similar approach, and while I do want to be clear and say that we don’t have any direct or overt references to either of things, I don’t want to be misleading,” Freeman said.

Freeman emphasized that the schools’ curriculum is not changing, and was approved by the Board of Education five years ago entirely in line with state guidelines. The methodology that Guilford uses across all disciplines promotes “inquiry-based” learning, according to Freeman, which allows students to approach material with their own unique questioning and perspectives rather than dictating one single interpretation.

“[Jeffries’s talk and the newsletter] in no way indicates the adoption of a new curriculum. That is an attempt to explain how we’ve been addressing history since 2016, and what we [have] heard over this last year,” Freeman said, adding the community had made it clear that it wanted more explicit focus on racial justice issues from the district.

In recent conversations with the Courier, Freeman spoke more extensively on what the inquiry-based approach looks like, emphasizing that students are heavily encouraged to bring their own perspectives and teachers are empowered to create opportunities for diverse approaches to material.

Freeman cited the Witness Stones Project, which has students study a single enslaved person from their town to learn about slavery on a granular level, as an example of the type of approach the schools want to take.

Witness Stones was founded by retired Guilford teacher Dennis Culliton, who has worked with a handful of schools around the state teaching the principles of the project.

“It fits right into that—going back and studying actual history with primary and secondary sources and allowing students to create their own understanding and meaning from that time period, rather than taking one pre-packaged perception of that time and presenting that as the only way of reading history,” Freeman said.

In another recent Facebook post, Scarpellino said that after an initial meeting with Freeman to discuss her concerns, a follow-up meeting was canceled without explanation.

Freeman confirmed he had an “extensive” in-person conversation with Scarpellino that also included Assistant Superintendent of Schools Annie Crystal, and that he felt they had collectively “exhausted the conversation” in that meeting, and currently had no scheduled follow-up.

After initially agreeing to speak to the Courier about her concerns, Scarpellino later posted on Facebook that she would “no longer be naive enough to accept requests for replies, meetings, press interviews, or any comments,” citing backlash from members of the community. She also posted a screenshot of another online petition entitled “Putting an End to Danielle Scapellino,” which she characterized as a “clear threat.”

That petition could not be accessed and did not show up on the referenced website at press time.


Jesse Williams covers Guilford and Madison for Zip06. Email Jesse at j.williams@shorepublishing.com.

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