The Great Neck Public Schools Board of Education turned into a contentious debate last week following a lesson taught in an 11th- grade English Regents class at North High School.
Board of Education President Rebecca Sassouni addressed the audience at the beginning of the meeting. Sassouni stated that since the reopening of schools this year the board had already received a number of comments regarding masking, social distancing, as well as “comments decrying demographic shifts alleging white supremacy, alleging anti-Semitism, alleging anti-Asian sentiment, comments expressing a variety of sincerely held religious beliefs from a variety of religions and other comments reflecting sincerely held ethical convictions about human sexuality.”
“The board is aware that there are some concerns regarding allegations about some materials taught that are the subject of some controversy,” Sassouni said. “The board has already directed the administration to review how materials are selected and reviewed, how widespread the material is and what the context is for its introduction. We have already directed the administration to facilitate building-level discussions, review and [hold] departmental meetings to invite families in to learn about coursework assigned and to discuss with educators the context for the materials. We have already been assured that this will occur. Please be reminded that counsel has advised the board that we may not comment about individual children or personnel.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Teresa Prendergast then gave a statement regarding the materials in question.
“We have seen excerpts pertaining to the materials introduced in an English 11 Regents class at North High school that were posted on social media,” Dr. Prendergast said. “While New York State law prohibits us from commenting on matters related to personnel, the district is actively reviewing these materials and will work collaboratively with our teachers and administrators to ensure that information is presented in a viewpoint neutral manner that stimulates critical thinking and reasoning skills. We remain committed to reviewing and addressing issues that may not align with our educational mission, while also providing support in a safe learning environment to all of our stakeholders. We also recognize the need to engage in outreach to parents prior to teaching sensitive controversial issues to help them understand the civic education with a focus on collaboration to promote controversial issues and discussions in a nonpartisan context.”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, parents addressed the board with various concerns, but a large portion of the nearly four-hour board meeting was focused around what some parents referred to as “critical race theory or CRT,” being taught in the classroom.
One parent stated that while she felt that the district should be encouraging the students to think critically, there is a difference between critical thinking and what was being taught in this classroom.
“There is a major difference between teaching critical thinking and promulgating political ideology that is not based in with any historical value,” she said. “Thinking that is not based with any historical value but is only promoted to instill in our children hatred, the feeling that they are not worthy, division and having them believe that based on the color of their skin that they are inherently racist—there are children that come home to their parents crying believing that based on what is being taught in the classroom that they are not fair amongst other children.”
Another parent stated that an educator who pushes critical race theory singles out students of certain races and is a “contributor to a systemic type of bullying.” The parent further stressed the idea that schools need to be a safe space and any violation of that should require disciplinary action.
“Tax-funded public schools should be a place where everyone can feel empowered by being proud of who they are,” he said. “Not a place where they are minimized and belittled. Tax-funded public schools are required to bring about positivity and encouragement to children regardless of religion, race, gender, ethnicity, creed or sexual orientation. Critical race theory will destroy its innocent victim’s self esteems and self confidence. It is negativity and its very essence is racism.”
While the majority of parents spoke against this teaching, some parents and teachers voiced to the board opposite opinions on the materials being taught in the classroom, stating that the materials provided students with critical thinking skills which fostered important discussions in the classroom.
“We cannot learn about solutions without looking at problems,” one teacher said. “We learn from the past together to help us all navigate the present together and for them to succeed in the future. Our children will not thrive in a complex world of millions of people if they only hear one voice or see one view. Learning how to think critically about multiple resources is essential to their growth. “
“I have read the slides on the internet and I am here to tell the board that I am very proud that we have a teacher who is introducing the newest ideas,” one parent stated. “These slides are thought-provoking. I don’t believe they are indoctrination. But I am not here to either promote or denounce these slides because I believe in our professionals with their years of training. I believe they develop their curriculum carefully and I’m here to support them.”
After a short recess, the meeting concluded with Sassouni stating that the board heard what everyone had to say and that they have been assured that the matter is being looked into.
“We are asking for information and [we] have been assured that families will be brought in and will have the opportunity to speak with educators,” Sassouni stated. “It will be learned how various matters have gotten into curricula and how they are reviewed and it will be okay. We are not at odds. There is no arming the teachers—it’s not a battle.”