Diversity class draws national attention
DELAVAN One mother's dispute with the Delavan-Darien School District has led to national media attention and review of the class material.
It has also led to veiled and not-so-veiled threats against district employees from people outside of the district.
At issue is a class called "American diversity" that has been taught for more than a decade in the district. Before that, the class was called "Minorities" and covered similar topics.
Last fall, Lisa Olson of Delavan was concerned when her son brought home information about critical race theory and white privilege.
Critical race theory "recognizes that racism is ingrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture," according to the UCLA School of Public Affairs.
White privilege refers to the idea that a person's color can give him or her an unspoken advantage because of both conscious and unconscious prejudice.
It's not just that material that upset Olson.
In an email to The Gazette, Olson wrote that critical race and white privilege are part of a "much larger progressive agenda to take on the conservative backlash against any effort to marginalize, demonize, and ultimately silence all opposition to the Marxist agenda of schools."
In addition, she wrote that the class "does not highlight the richness in our nations' diversity, but a blame game that offers an us-versus-them mentality."
Along with some of the theories, Olson objected to an exercise that asked students to go to Wal-Mart and consider what ethnic groups toys were marketed to.
Mike Heine, coordinator of school-community relations for the district, said the material on critical race theory and white privilege took up two days of the 90-day course and that the ideas were topics for student discussion.
The ability to delve into ideas and issues and then discuss and write about them critically are aspects of new, nationwide, "common core" standards. The standards are intended to raise the academic bar and help students become more competitive with their peers worldwide.
District Administrator Robert Crist said Olson's concerns were the first parent complaint about a class he's aware of.
Olson expressed her concerns to the district in November and said she filed a formal complaint Nov. 27.
In an email to The Gazette, Olson said the concerns she presented were not taken seriously until the national media, including Fox News, got involved in mid-January.
"A decision was reached to keep the material in the course on Jan. 4, 2013," Olson wrote in her email. "I rejected that decision. There were no ‘red flags raised' on behalf of the superintendent until the national media started reporting on this."
School district officials said action was taken immediately after her complaint.
Board minutes indicate Olson presented her concerns at the Dec. 10 board meeting.
Following the meeting, Crist; Cora Rund, district director of curriculum and instruction; and Mark Schmitt, high school principal, met and looked at the materials in question, the course syllabus and some of the assignments, Heine said.
Crist, noting the controversial nature of some of the material, asked Rund to be in charge of a curriculum or "program" review of the course in spring or early summer, Heine said. Crist instructed that the review include members of the community and school staff. Olson was asked to participate in the review, Heine said.
The review will look at everything—from the name of the course to the material covered to the class's outcomes and objectives.
District discussions and planning went on in December and early January, before the national media was contacted, Heine said.
Crist said he took Olson's complaint seriously from the start.
"Any time a parent calls me with a school-related concern, I take it seriously," he said.
The material in question was reviewed by the school board and Crist. The whole course will be reviewed this spring.
All classes undergo a review periodically, Crist said. The review for "American diversity" will move to the top of the list.
The course is not scheduled to run again until the first semester of the 2013-14 school year. The course must be approved by the school board before being taught again.
Olson said her goal is "not only to have this material removed but to inform parents."
Bias in the media, the left and academia have created a "climate of fear" around speaking out about this issue, Olson said.
"People are afraid of speak out on this for fear of being accused of racism," Olson said.
Not everyone has been afraid of speaking out. The national coverage of the issue has led to threats against district employees—the majority of them coming from outside of the district, Heine said.
"We've had people call and say we should be taken out back and beaten, people who said they were going to see we get what's coming to us," Heine said. "But no parent, not one, who had a child in the class or previously had the class has called with similar concerns."
Delavan-Darien School Board hires Latino liaison
A former candidate for the Delavan-Darien School Board and a well-known community volunteer has been hired as the new part-time Latino liaison for the district.
Luis Solis, a Delavan resident and a parent of four children who attend school in the district, will provide outreach for all families, with a focus on Latino and Spanish-speaking families, according to a news release from the district.
"Personal connections are very important in developing partnerships with our families," Phoenix Middle School Principal Mark Weerts said in the release. "Part of his responsibility will be to help make those personal, face-to-face conversations to ensure families and parents with students in our schools feel they are true partners with our district."
The school board unanimously approved hiring Solis at the January board meeting.
The district recently approved a strategic plan that calls for engaging families and strengthening partnerships within the community, according to the release.
To start, Solis will work primarily out of Phoenix Middle School and with its students and families. He will work about 20 hours per week with much of the time spent in the community.
Parent involvement is crucial to the success of students, Solis said.
"I have seen a lot of other parents reaching out and becoming an active part of the district once a connection has been made," Solis said. "It's great the district is reaching out this way. We're working now. We're not just talking. We're doing."
Solis said he hopes to bring a cultural understanding to both parents and staff in the district.
He hopes to help bridge the language barriers to forge stronger partnerships between schools and families.