Painting by preschool students, provided by the Clayton School district.
Painting by preschool students, provided by the Clayton School district.

A Threat to Clayton’s Educational Equity

January 27, 2022

When you walk into a Clayton school you will find classroom libraries full of books of every topic and posters covering the walls with key historical events, but imagine if those shelves became limited and the walls became sparse because of a new law. House Bill 1474, written to change rules about the teaching of critical race theory and parental rights in education, was brought to a public hearing on January 11th in the Missouri House. Numerous Clayton students and parents attended the hearing to fight against the bill. Within Clayton people are asking what this bill could mean for our schools.

“We are really lucky to have a strong base in curriculum but also in educational equity,” said literacy curriculum coordinator Jennifer Sellenriek.

Sellenriek said Clayton is “absolutely” examining the roots of racism in its curriculum.

The bill’s passing would result in numerous educational resources regarding race, gender and religion being banned from use in public schools, threatening the values of Clayton’s classrooms.

In House Bill 1474, critical race theory is used as a noun, whereas in the original definition it is a verb. Critical race theory, according to the American Bar Association, is interrogating the role of race and racism in society, often intersecting with ideas about gender and religion.

House Bill 1474 states that critical race theory is the use of a curriculum that says that groups, people or entities are inherently racist, sexist, biased, privileged or oppressed. Also the employment of characteristics like race, income and sexual orientation is mentioned as a part of “curriculum implementing critical race theory.” Assigning blame to a group of people because of an individual’s actions is also a key part of the bill’s definition. Organizations like We Stories, Programs of Educational Equity Consultants and The 1619 Project will be forbidden from use by schools if the bill passes, including their similar predecessors and successors.

Dr. Cameron Poole, the school district’s diversity and inclusion coordinator, has noticed that once he explains what critical race theory is perspective and understanding of it completely changes, “I’ve had a number of conversations with parents who ask about ‘what is critical race theory that I’m seeing?’ and really just wanting clarity. Someone who can have that conversation I think is extremely important to getting people to understand what critical race theory looks like versus teaching about race or teaching about diversity, culture or things like that.”

While Clayton may not use critical race theory in its curriculum, it does use a curriculum that presents facts concerning current or historical groups that may fall under the bill’s definition. The examination of these groups, people and events in American and world history is highly important to giving students a well rounded education. Without it students all across the state could have a significant piece of their education lost.

“What I fear the most is that, I think public education is guaranteed for all students, all students should be learning, and if we have a small group of parents and politicians saying this is the way it should be taught then there are a whole lot of kids who are not being taught what they need to become productive citizens in the world,” said Sellenriek.

Clayton puts a large emphasis on diversity learning in the classroom. Every freshman reads the play Raisin in The Sun and learns the history and laws that affected the family the play follows. Each year of history class students are taught about the Holocaust, slavery and the civil rights movement to learn about oppression that groups have faced in history and how these events still affect our world today.

In preschool, kids are taught at the youngest age using books illustrated with characters of all skin colors, gender identities, sexual orientations and religious beliefs. When you walk by the preschool you will see the window covered in a rainbow painted in numerous skin tones, displaying the beauty of every kid who walks into a Clayton classroom. Every book and unit in our schools is selected to teach kids about our past as well as the future they will help make. The passing and policing of a bill like 1474 could change everything.

Poole mentioned how the bill threatens the goal of teaching about diversity and equitability: “If I can’t compare two experiences then I am limiting my ability to use my critical thinking skills. If I can’t point out societal issues or situations and conflicts and be able to write them down, you’re taking away some of the most important engines in order to build critical thinking and reasoning and perspective and world views.”

It is unfair for a law to take away students’ rights to a full education of history and current events, but how much would this bill really affect a district so passionate about teaching diversity?

Poole’s response was straightforward and to the point: our district will do everything to continue teaching how it is already. “Our board of education has remained committed to, ‘Hey this is who we are, this is what we are going to teach,’ so I think it’s just a matter of doing what we are doing and when those consequences come trying to find the best way to deal with it,” Poole said.

The bill could lead to extra stress for teachers even if the school district is doing everything they can to protect our education.

“What I am most concerned about actually is not how we change as a district because I think our district will support what’s right,” Sellenriek said. “What I am concerned about for our district is the stress that [legislation] puts on teachers.”

Every piece of information taught by Clayton’s teachers is carefully examined and researched to ensure that it is beneficial in educating students about history and the world they currently live in. If teachers have to add an extra worry about whether material they present is breaking the law, it threatens the integrity of equitable teaching in our classrooms.

The divide in our country has become a threat to students’ opportunities for a complete education. How can the Clayton community prevent a loss of our values? Alongside going to fight against bills like 1474 at the source in Jefferson City, conversation will be the key.

“To me it starts with conversations,” Poole said. “Different parents have to have different conversations with their children based on their identity. If you’re raising a boy, girl or someone trans or whatever that identity is, there are certain conversations about that.”

As a journalistic organization, we believe the banning of books is antithetical to the fostering of the free exchange of ideas and expression to the pursuit of truth.

While the fight to maintain equity in our education system continues, do not be afraid to voice your opinion, have conversations and help every generation of students, present, future and past, have the opportunity to understand the world around them.

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