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Garfield Re-2 school board rejects American Birthright for social studies — for now

People packed into Garfield Re-2 district offices in Rifle on October 25, 2023. More congregated in an overflow room across the hall to watch the meeting on video. The meeting ended up lasting nearly six hours.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
People packed into Garfield Re-2 district offices in Rifle on October 25, 2023. More congregated in an overflow room across the hall to watch the meeting on video. The meeting ended up lasting nearly six hours.

It was standing room only at the Garfield Re-2 School Dstrict’s office in Rifle. Well over 100 people showed up for a school board meeting, where a discussion about district social studies standards was on the agenda, then disappeared. Still, the community was ready to be heard.

The meeting ended up being the culmination of months of debate and discussion over what kids should and shouldn’t be learning about in their social studies classes.

Colorado’s Department of Education developed and adopted a set of social studies standards last year that complied with new state laws, requiring education about genocide and the Holocaust, financial and media literacy, and the contributions of underrepresented groups to state and national history. Most school districts in Colorado adopted that standard without much fanfare.

But Garfield Re-2 school board president Tony May asked that the district consider another option: the conservative American Birthright Standard.

In an email to his fellow board members in April, May called the state standard “a forced political indoctrination agenda that has nothing to do with reading, writing and arithmetic.” He also said that “a much better fit would be the American Birthright Standard,” which he said would “meet or exceed the state standards.”

 Tony May (right) confers with school board member Jason Shoup during a break in the October 25, 2023 meeting. Shoup was the member who moved to put the social studies discussion back on the agenda.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
Tony May (right) confers with school board member Jason Shoup during a break in the October 25, 2023 meeting. Shoup was the member who moved to put the social studies discussion back on the agenda.

Dr. Elizabeth Hinde is the dean of the School of Education at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

“American Birthright is a backlash,” she said. “So it's in a long line of other curriculum movements that were in response to something happening to culture wars.”

And sure enough, the authors of the American Birthright Standard (ABS) write in their introduction that they are opposed to “so-called ‘anti-racism,’ civic engagement, critical race theory, current events learning, inquiry-based learning, media literacy, project-based learning, social-emotional learning, and virtually any pedagogy that claims to promote ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ or ‘social justice.’”

American Birthright has been rejected by the National Council for the Social Studies, which it says has a clear political agenda, and uses outdated language. For example, it uses the term “Indian” instead of Native American, Indigenous Peoples, or, in the case of Canada, First Nations.

The National Council for the Social Studies says that if American Birthright is implemented in schools, “these suggested standards would have damaging and lasting effects on the civic knowledge of students and their capacity to engage in civic reasoning and deliberation.”

Furthermore, Dr. Hinde said ABS provides students with a laundry list of facts to memorize, and few opportunities to develop higher-level critical thinking skills.

“I would like our graduates to be able to do more than just regurgitate facts,” she said. “My assumption about their assumption is that if people know these facts, they're going to be better citizens. I don't know that that's true.”

Most of the people who came to the school board meeting were against American Birthright. Among those were Latino residents, who wanted to make sure their kids and their heritage were recognized in the classroom. Garfield Re-2’s student population is over 50% Latino.

When it was his turn to speak, Alan Muñoz Valenciano said that standards like American Birthright promote “misinformation,” and a lack of cultural awareness that can lead to bullying and discrimination.

“I lived through a very difficult and damaging experience that to this day I can remember vividly,” he recounted in his public comment. “From being called racial slurs to being told to not speak Spanish, this was the reality of my schooling here… We need to celebrate our students' diversity and encourage a schooling system that recognizes and commemorates our students' past cultures. Our schools need integration, not assimilation.”

Irene Withrock moved to Rifle 10 years ago. She’s pleased that there are more resources for Latino families now and that diversity is celebrated, and wants the district to continue down that path. She spoke in Spanish and used an interpreter for public comment.

“Yo les pido que voten por el 2022 Colorado Standards, porque es la mejor decisión para que nuestros niños no se atrasen en la educación social,” she said in Spanish. “Yo pienso que no debemos de encerrarlos en una burbuja. Ellos tienen derecho a aprender la realidad de la historia y de cómo todo en este mundo está cambiando para que estén preparados para un mejor futuro.

“I ask that you vote for the 2022 Colorado Social Studies standards because it is the best decision so that our children do not fall behind in social education,” her interpreter said in English. “I think that we should not lock them in a bubble. They have the right to learn the reality of history and how everything in the world is changing so that they are prepared for a better future.”

The evening’s discussion and vote almost didn’t happen because May, the school board president, requested it be struck from the agenda.

Tony May confers with the school board's secretary during a break in the October 25, 2023 meeting. May was on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for how he handled the district's social studies conversation.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
Tony May confers with the school board's secretary during a break in the October 25, 2023 meeting. May was on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for how he handled the district's social studies conversation.

But other district officials at the meeting disagreed. They said they owed it to the community to hear their thoughts after the district had spent months getting feedback and input.

May received some sharply-worded criticism from the community, including comments from three former school board presidents.

Anne Guettler was among them. She was term-limited off the board when May was elected. Guettler said the community had high hopes for him when he became school board president.

“Instead, you've bullied staff, you’ve bullied board members, community members,” she said. “You've abdicated responsibility in engaging the community by refusing to put the social studies adoption on the agenda. You've circumvented processes by insisting the district consider ABS and you've recommended the use of a narrow-focus consultant and you tried to force a single-minded extreme agenda on our district. The community is saying enough.”

May cut her off promptly at the three minute mark, drawing rebukes from other people present.

For his part, May was unapologetic about his support for American Birthright.

“I want to thank everyone for being here, and what you don't recognize is that there's a silent majority out there as well,” he said after the public comment period ended.

The crowd shut him down with a chorus of laughter and boos, with some people shouting that that silent majority should’ve shown up.

And the conversation is not over yet. The school board approved the 2022 adopted standards, but now, it has to develop a curriculum.

Dr. Elizabeth Hinde said that the curriculum is what will actually be taught in schools.

“Now, standards should be a framework, a framework for what is taught in the classrooms,” she said. “Kind of, ‘this is what we want children to learn.’ The curriculum are the lesson plans, the activities, the objectives in the schools, it's kind of on-the-ground material that children will learn in order to get to the standard.”

And some folks in the district are worried that May and others with a political agenda will use the curriculum development process as an opportunity.

Teka Israel is a fifth grade math teacher and secretary of the district’s teacher’s union.

“So we just want to let everyone know that tonight was a momentary victory of a much larger battle,” she said.

At the end of the nearly six-hour meeting, Tony May was the lone “no” vote against the Colorado 2022 Standard.

Copyright 2023 Aspen Public Radio . To see more, visit Aspen Public Radio.

Caroline Llanes