by Grace Sousa & John Timko, Centerfold Editors
photo-graphic by Evan Ng, Photo Manager
*denotes names hidden to protect identity
On March 28, over 250 students, parents and administrators packed the cafeteria at Newton North to express either their concerns about or support of a petition regarding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives throughout the Newton Public Schools (NPS).
The NPS Department of DEI was designed to build a culturally-conscious education, strengthen inclusion and create a community with leaders who represent NPS’s diverse students.
The petition in question, spearheaded by the Newton Families for Improving Academics (ImproveNPS), implored NPS to create a parental advisory panel to strengthen communication between families and schools. The proposed committee would be appointed to advise the school on the NPS curriculum; however some argued that ImproveNPS’s petition was a disguised attack on NPS’s Statement of Values and Commitment to Racial Equity.
One of the students at the hearing, senior Ishaan Tewari, co-president of South’s Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said he attended to advocate for diversity in the schools. Before the hearing, Tewari and his fellow ACLU members prepared speeches to rebut ImproveNPS’s petition.
“Preparing for it was the most difficult part because we didn’t know a lot about the group starting the petition,” he said. “My biggest worry was that what we were saying needed to be accurate.”
On the day of the hearing, Tewari said he was surprised by the sheer number of people at the hearing who voiced their support for either side — each voice came with different perspectives, all advocating for what they believed was best for NPS.
“I don’t think either side was expecting so many diverse speakers,” he said. “There were a bunch of really powerful voices, including fourth graders from Franklin Elementary School.”
By the end of the hearing, the petition to overturn DEI was unanimously rejected by the School Committee; however, the dispute over parental involvement in schools still persists. The community continues to attempt to strike a balance of the concerns of those who seek to preserve a traditional educational approach with the hopes of those interested in including DEI practices in curriculums.
A Piece of the Puzzle
As Newton attempts to create opportunities for students part of historically marginalized identities, some parents doubt that NPS is ensuring an appropriate and non-discriminatory school environment.
A month after the DEI hearing, a proposed drag show event at North for Transgender, Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Awareness Day (ToBeGlad) sparked disputes over the appropriateness of the event.
The show, pitched as an optional assembly open to anyone, involved drag performer Missy Steak, who sang for those in attendance; however, a group of parents called on North to cancel it, arguing that it was unsuitable for high schoolers.
School Committee member Chris Brezski said that parents’ concerns were valid due to the sexual connotations of drag.
“I’m not going to say they’re illegitimate concerns,” he said. “There was objectionable material linked to the performer online and [parents] probably wouldn’t want some of that in a school performance.”
But it isn’t just performances that have garnered protest from parent groups. Parents have also complained about race-based discrimination within school clubs, claiming that certain groups are too exclusive.
North’s theater program, Theatre Ink, put on a play called “Lost and Found: Our Stories as People of Color”, intended to showcase student actors of color. A national parent organization, Parents Defending Education (PDE), claimed that the production violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it excluded white students.
PDE filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), an agency under the Department of Education which enforces civil rights laws that prohibit schools from discriminating on the basis of race, nationality, sex, disability or age.
Arlington parent Richard Deranian said he thinks creating specialized spaces for minority students, like the “Lost and Found” production, isn’t wise because it will cause division.
“Instead of just having separate affinity groups, you have to incorporate them, there has to be a melding,” he said. “The more you have individual groups, there will be more separatism.”
On the contrary, former Interim Superintendent Kathleen Smith said that Theatre Ink’s mission was not to divide students, but to design a performance for students to celebrate their heritage.
“While centered in the stories of the lives of our students of color, no one was turned away or excluded from participating or having a role in the production,” she said in an NPS press release.
After the Theatre Ink incident, the PDE filed another complaint against North regarding discrimination. PDE alleged that the Dover Legacy Scholars (DLS) program, designed to provide increased support for students underrepresented in higher education systems, was guilty of discrimination, since it only applies to students of specific racial backgrounds.
“Although this affinity group’s aim is to make sure the Scholars feel supported and fully connected to each other, it is clear this affinity group is not open to all students who attend [North],” PDE stated in their complaint. “One of the qualifications for obtaining entry into [DLS] is to be ‘of Black or Latinx descent.’”
Arlington music educator Dan Teager said that if schools give students access to academic aid or other special programs, those opportunities should be available and open to all.
“I have no problem celebrating people’s cultures. It’s wonderful,” he said. “I do have a problem particularly with a public high school that is excluding people.”
The concerns of some of these parents are not echoed by all students and administrators within the school system.
In April, about 20 citizens from Newton and Boston organized on the Newton Centre Green to protest Missy Steak’s performance, which had been intended to celebrate the identity of the LGBTQ+ community. The protesters were quickly outnumbered by nearly 100 supporters of the performance and its meaning.
In an interview with NBC10 Boston, Steak said her performance at North did not include sexual connotations.
“I am not going to be doing anything that’s un-age-appropriate,” she said. “We come in and we sing, or we dance or we read and we leave, and it’s just something we do for fun and to bring fun to other people.”
Many of Steak’s supporters were part of the Newton student body.
Amber Freiman-Polli, senior and Vice President of South’s GSA, said students must advocate that their forms of expression, like the ToBeGlad celebration, are under attack.
“It’s important to constantly do counter protests, spread awareness and keep responding directly whenever a group [challenges ideas],” she said. “The most important part is the change we can make with the power of students.”
Not only have NPS students voiced their concerns, but educators in the school system have made their mark too.
During the lawsuit against DLS, South Principal Tamara Stras said she supported North because she stands by the beliefs of the school system.
“I got involved during the complaints made against DLS because [South] also has Legacy Scholars,” she said. “I know that I am doing the work that’s right for students. [NPS] stands strong in our values and what we believe in. That’s always going to be at the forefront.”
Pieces in the Box
Beyond special events and groups, some parents and educators disagree on the very contents of the curricula taught to their students.
North Reading parent Joseph Carter* said that he believes educators improperly integrate their own political beliefs into the material they teach.
“[The school] gets too involved with their personal political beliefs,” he said.“Schools should be responsible for teaching kids science, history, English, math and cooking. It’s always worked for generations before, including some of the greatest generations in this country’s history.”
In order to achieve a balance, some believe that instead of getting involved themselves, parents need to give their children the freedom to form their own opinions.
Mia Dror, senior and President of Jewish Student Union (JSU), said that it’s important for students to be exposed to different perspectives to develop their own beliefs.
“If you teach your kid to believe in something, they should be able to go to school, hear other opinions, and still get to choose what they want to believe in,” she said.
Teager also said that letting students hear multiple opinions is crucial to letting them decide what they think is right.
“Our history is full of bad things and it’s okay to say so. That is the job of educators,” he said. “[Teachers] have to present the full story and then people form their own opinions. To not teach it is doing a disservice to students.”
Division arises in the conversation about whether or not a cohesive response is needed to address parents’ attacks on affinity groups and school curricula.
Although it is important to acknowledge when a school is involved in controversy, some believe that there must be a balance between containing and responding to the issue.
Brezski said that when a national group like PDE is involved, he tries not to engage unless a severe accusation is made.
“I don’t pay much attention to it because it’s noise for the most part,” he said. “However, when there’s complaints filed and lawsuits made, we’ve got to address them and deal with them.”
Director of Legacy Scholars and Engagement Specialist of The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) at South, Katani Sumner, said that when it comes to complaints outside the school system, the administration’s main goal is to protect the students.
“The goal of any teacher or adult in the building is to make sure that this outside noise has a minimal effect on the actual students,” she said. “Only when events start looking like it is negatively impacting the students, then we may have to speak to that group directly.”
While many NPS staff members are focused on addressing complaints discreetly and cautiously, others believe that parents’ concerns should be brought to the community’s attention.
Deranian said that parents should be informed about the events their children are being exposed to at school, and that it is crucial for parents to spread awareness about their concerns.
“More parents need to bring it to light in any kind of forum they can, it needs to be out there, and [the school] should directly address it, instead of responding with general statements,” he said.
Others believe that the importance of highlighting these issues extends to students, who can make sure their voices are heard once they are aware of such complaints.
Paris Figuereo, former Vice President of South’s Black Student Union (BSU), said that staff should have conversations with students about parent complaints so that NPS members can work together to arrange a unified response.
“Students should know when their affinity groups are being attacked and teachers should talk about it,” she said. “[NPS] needs to be more proactive in our response, whether it’s going to the town of Newton, the district hall or having [educators] speak on the behalf of students.”
Solving the Puzzle Together
In order for the NPS community to find a common ground, it is essential for concerned parents, administrators and students to communicate and reach mutual trust.
Superintendent Anna Nolin said that communication needs to begin between students and parents.
“Students have different ideas and needs just like their parents do. I would never assume that kids are 100 percent ideologically aligned with their parents,” she said. “You don’t want kids disconnected from their parents. If they have different ideologies, they should learn to work through those [differences] together.”
Deranian said that he too believes communication with his children is key.
“It’s imperative that you communicate with the kids about everything,” he said. “Conversating daily if possible is important to understand your child, for the formulation of that child’s beliefs and to dispel something that was negatively portrayed to them.”
Sumner said students must have the opportunity to voice their concerns in a safe and open environment before taking action.
“If groups are trying to ensure the safety of their students, they have to consider what’s best for all students,” she said. “A conversation in a respectful space has to start before a group decides to put forth itself. People need to understand that their actions can be harmful for other students who are equally as valuable.”
Deranian said that he hopes parents and administrators can put their emotions aside in order to have productive conversations.
“When you have a bunch of agitated people in an agitated situation, you’re always going to have controversy and not a meaningful discussion,” he said. “It’s upsetting watching intelligent people lobbing bombs at one another and that’s what seems to happen with these local meetings. Hopefully, they can put the emotions aside and put the facts on the table, but that’s the hard part.”
NPS parents, children and staff share a common goal: to protect students’ education and to create a positive learning environment. In order to work together and achieve that mission, Nolin said that it is essential for the NPS community to keep their goal of student protection at the forefront and remember to stay connected throughout the process.
“[NPS] should be caring for all children and giving them all the experiences that Newton has to offer,” she said. “It’s our job to untie knots when conflicts come up. That’s about listening, communicating and staying in a relationship while we work through the tough stuff.”