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B-N Students Defend Inclusive Curriculum, As Conservatives Mobilize Against It

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Screenshot - Zoom
Bloomington-Normal high school students and recent grads are advocating for inclusive education, which is under attack as conservatives nationwide rally against teaching students about systemic racism. Clockwise from top left: Addison Weaver, Yvin Shin, Anusha Nadkarni, and Jolie Ortiz.

Bloomington-Normal high school students say they reject the idea that making curricula more inclusive "divides" students.

That comes in response to a conservative campaign against the way students are taught about race, American history and sexual health.

Those issues drew a large crowd at last week's District 87 school board meeting. They're expected to appear again Wednesday evening at Unit 5's meeting.

Students say dissenters' arguments don't track with what's happening in their classrooms.

More than 50 community members filled the room for District 87's most recent school board meeting. Some held signs that read “Stop indoctrination of our children” and “No critical race theory." Others wore "Black Lives Matter" on their clothing.

The board heard nearly two hours of tense public comment, during which adults berated and talked over students defending the way the district handles conversations about race and sexual health.

"Knowing that those perspectives existed is a very different reality from actually encountering those perspectives. I think the hostility in the room and the tension that was introduced really caught me off guard.”
Yvin Shin

Yvin Shin, a recent University High grad and leader of Not In Our Schools, said the tone was adversarial from the start.

“I had known of both efforts to make our education more inclusive and opposition to those efforts for a while. But I think knowing that those perspectives existed is a very different reality from actually encountering those perspectives," Shin said. "I think the hostility in the room and the tension that was introduced really caught me off guard.”

Students said more than the arguments being made, the approach was off-putting.

“They brought up wanting to care for their children, they brought up fears of being targeted—all fears that if we look at them through our own perspectives, we can empathize with. But it seemed as though that route to conversation and dialogue was largely blocked off before we could really get off the ground," Shin said.

The two main conservative talking points , critical race theory and the 1619 Project, are not part of Illinois's curriculum. Nor are they taught in Bloomington-Normal schools—or virtually at any K-12 school district in the country, for that matter.

They've become a political target across the country in a rapidly growing fight against lessons on systemic racism. There are at least 165 local and national groups aiming to disrupt curricula on race and gender, according to an NBC News analysis. The effort is growing with the help of conservative media and finding allies in families frustrated over other issues, like COVID restrictions in schools that also played a role in District 87's meeting.

The issue has found its way into school board meetings and state legislatures across the U.S. To date, lawmakers in 21 states have introduced bills that would restrict teaching critical race theory, or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis. Five states have signed these bills into law.

"I have never seen, in any of my classes, white students made to feel bad about systemic racism. That just doesn't happen."
Addison Weaver

Students say the conflict is bigger than specific teaching tools or decisions at the district level.

Addison Weaver, an incoming senior at Bloomington High School, said people have been emboldened to share harmful viewpoints in recent years.

"It is a politically charged word to say 'critical race theory.' There are a lot of buzzwords associated with that, that people automatically hear and they go, 'Oh, that's bad.' And I really feel like that that is unfair to the concept of a comprehensive education for students," Weaver said. "The the way that we grow and become better people is to know more things."

Weaver said teaching students how other people live, how to understand different perspectives and the ideas that enforce those perspectives build empathy and compassion.

"It is disheartening to see people who, from the baseline argument, really believe that style of teaching is harmful to students—and I believe they also said specifically to white students. That's something that I have never seen in our school. I have never seen, in any of my classes, white students made to feel bad about systemic racism," Weaver said. "That just doesn't happen."

Students said what's really being fought against is any attempt to center non-white perspectives. Intertwined in the push against critical race theory are diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and culturally responsive teaching—two principles school administrators say they have no plans of abandoning.

Anusha Nadkarni, an incoming BHS junior, said there is no ulterior motive in those efforts, as conservatives claim.

“We're not learning to hate white people—kind of the opposite. When you teach DEI you teach children to love themselves and to love others, and to treat others with kindness and respect," said Nadkarni, adding restricting conversations about systemic racism or sexual health in public schools won't make them go away.

"These are people who really have no stakes in what happens here. It's kind of important to remember that we're the ones who face the consequences—not just at the school board meetings, but when we learn."
Anusha Nadkarni

"Because if students have questions, if they don't know what's going on, if they're not learning it in the place where they're expected to learn things—they're going to find a way to learn it," Nadkarni said. "Schools need to be there to be like a safety cushion to make sure that these students are learning it healthily.”

Nadkarni said "protecting children" means respecting that they should have a say in their own education.

"A lot of the people (at the District 87 meeting) don't live in Bloomington. They don't have children. A lot of them admitted that they pulled their children from District 87," Nadkarni said. "These are people who really have no stakes in what happens here. It's kind of important to remember that we're the ones who face the consequences—not just at the school board meetings, but when we learn."

Addi Weaver thinks it's good that people want to be involved in what happens in local school districts, but there's a level of respect that's lacking.

"Especially adults talking to students in ways that really were not appropriate for adults to be talking to us," Weaver said. "I'm somebody's child, too. We are all somebody's child. And after that meeting, you know, my mom doesn't feel comfortable with me going to more school board meetings. And that's not okay."

Students encouraged those with concerns to talk to teachers, as well as their own kids, to find out what children are learning in schools before making accusations in a school board meeting, a venue that's not conducive to having conversations.

Students also are cautioning others not to get swept up in the panic over critical race theory.

Jolie Ortiz, an incoming junior at BHS, said to talk to those who actually involved in creating curriculum.

"Go and ask your teachers what your children are learning, ask your children what they're learning in schools—especially before you come and accuse, and come out with a lot of confrontation in your voice," Ortiz said. "Ask those questions and try to understand what your children are learning in school so that you can better ask those questions.”

Ortiz said a school board meeting, where board members are by rule not allowed to respond, is not the place to address concerns over curriculum.

"I would love to have that conversation. I think both sides need some time to cool down before that conversation can take place," Ortiz said.

Unit 5's school board meets at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

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