Education, Gold Dome, Politics

Benigno: District misleading Jeffco parents about controversial curriculum

Last Friday Governor Polis signed into law one of the most controversial pieces of legislation of the past session: House Bill 1032, which restructures the content of comprehensive sexual education. While the legislation sparked outrage and received historic attention that perhaps helped soften some of its provisions, the adopted version of HB 1032 remains a serious usurpation of local school board power by the state government. However, beyond the light of statewide media attention, similar overreaches are taking place at the local level, including at one elementary school in Jefferson County.

When it comes to human sexuality programs, parents still have the right to opt their children out of instruction with which they disagree. But what about K-12 instruction that touches on controversial issues outside the scope of human sexuality education? Do parents have the right to ask for alternate assignments when their children are to be exposed to resources that are controversial or to topics that are sensitive in nature, or which directly contradict a family’s values and beliefs? The answer: it depends on the school district and in some cases on whether districts decide to abide by their own policies.

Over the past year one elementary school in Jefferson County has been working to introduce a curriculum built by AMAZEworks. The package includes over 100 colorful storybooks and accompanying lesson plans, all of which are designed to “[foster] social-emotional learning through the lens of anti-bias education” and cover an extensive list of topics which include “race/ethnicity, immigration, religion, socioeconomics, disabilities, gay/lesbian/transgender family members, divorce/blended, aging, foster care, incarceration, death, deployment, and adoption.”

I recently attended a meeting at the school. From the discussion I gathered that the purpose of the event was for parents to ask questions about the use of the AMAZEworks curriculum in their neighborhood school. In attendance were four members of the superintendent’s cabinet and other district administrators, all of whom were supportive of the program, as demonstrated by the AMAZEworks stickers on their clothing. In fact, one administrator commented that he intends to encourage the adoption of the AMAZEworks program throughout the district.

Some of the parents who attended the meeting were also supportive of the program, with one mom emotionally expressing her support for the books because of a tragic death in her family. She went on to convey her appreciation of the school’s desire to help children understand similar tragedies.

Others, however, had some concerns. One dad, for instance, informed the administrators that he was uncomfortable with his kindergartner hearing stories about divorce at school. He and those who shared his qualms about the program all wanted to know whether their children could be opted-out of the program. The school’s and district’s response was an unequivocal “no.”

After the meeting I read several of the beautifully illustrated picture books. I am Jazz and Jacob’s New Dress, for instance, are both storybooks about transgender children, and are part of the AMAZEworks kindergarten curriculum. Some parents are likely afraid to voice their concerns about the more controversial topics in the collection of stories, self-censoring what they do and do not say for fear of being ostracized by their community.

Nevertheless, a number of parents have expressed their opposition to the use of these materials and the accompanying discussion questions and guidelines. I met some of them following the meeting. Each of these families likely has its own specific motives for their concern, but these are all of far less importance than the principle that unites them: the idea that they, the parents, should be able to exercise some control over what their child is and is not exposed to, especially in the deeply personal and sensitive area of emotional and behavioral upbringing.

Some of the topics covered in these books, such as death and aging, for instance, are so deeply intertwined with the values, beliefs, and experiences of individual families that a parent is well justified in his or her hesitance to cede to the government the power to make the ultimate decision about the timing, content, and framing in which such topics are presented.

The Colorado Association of School Boards recommends that school boards adopt a policy regulating the use of controversial resources, and Jefferson County Public Schools does in fact have a controversial resources policy that allows parents to request alternate learning activities.

Defining what “controversial” means might be a difficult task, but it should be noted that many of the books in the collection are listed on the American Library Association’s annual most challenged book lists. The King and King, one of the books in the curriculum, was in fact the subject of a federal lawsuit. So, controversy in effect precedes a large portion of the curriculum.

Despite all of this, the district’s controversial resource policy was never even brought up.

Additionally, one high-level administrator made it clear that the materials are supplemental and therefore do not require approval by the school board. This is true, but the district also has a supplemental resources policy, which again clearly provides that alternative learning resources must be available upon a parent’s request if supplemental materials are used.

Finally, the district has a seemingly strict set of policies concerning the introduction of instructional materials, supplemental or otherwise, but from what I’ve been able to gather it seems to be following them rather selectively. Sometimes the program is called a pilot and sometimes not, and it has never been made really clear how the resources will actually be used in the classroom.

When it comes to the AMAZEworks curriculum at this particular school, the implementation process seems to have been fashioned ad hoc, thus creating a near-total lack of transparency and demonstrating a lack of regard for parental rights.

Pam Benigno is director of the Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute in Denver.

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