After several parents spoke against it, the board of the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District said it needed to "pause" a professional development course that aims to train staff on "social justice oriented classroom practices."
Bre Evans-Santiago, department chairwoman for teacher education at Cal State Bakersfield, was planning to teach a one-day course on Aug. 6 for elementary and junior high teachers and academic coaches at Tevis Junior High. The course would be offered through pbvU, one of the programs the district uses to provide professional development to its certificated staff.
Evans-Santiago told the board that both courses, the 101 and 102, were centered on an anthology she edited, "Mistakes We Have Made: Implications for Social Justice Educators." She said social justice is about "diversity, equity and inclusion."
The first course is about helping teachers communicate, connect and deal with challenging behavior that may be rooted in trauma. The second course focuses on curriculum and making it more inclusive. She said the course has received glowing reviews, including from 70 district staff who have taken it.
Jennifer Irvin, assistant superintendent of educational services, said pbvU offers 20 to 25 classes on subjects including language arts, math, social emotional learning and technology. In 2018, the program was started by Jason Hodgson, now the superintendent of Taft Union High School District. District staff and consultants offer courses that put staff on track to earn credits that go toward their salary schedule.
Hodgson brought Evans-Santiago on board with pbvU, and he greenlighted the first course she offered that the board had already approved as well as this new course.
Most of the speakers at Tuesday's meeting said they wanted to see the district focus on learning loss in the wake of the pandemic, instead of this course. Russell Johnson, a representative for the newly-formed parent group Kids First Kern, told the board that the perception of district priorities is important.
"When you look at the fact that we just went through a pandemic and you look at the agenda item as it was proposed, you might be better off with a topic related to teachers dealing with how to engage students, how to identify gaps created by not being in in-person schooling, trying to address things that are really important to the core issues of reading, writing and arithmetic, because I think that's what's important to parents and our kids," Johnson said.
But some speakers brought up concerns about critical race theory, a politically-charged topic that has roiled many school boards in the country and even prompted state legislation aimed at banning curriculum viewed by some as divisive on issues such as race. Some parents said they took issue with the book itself and worried that their young white children might be viewed as oppressors.
Tom Creswell urged the board to be careful.
"What I see on the news particularly is this sense of guilt because I'm a white male," Creswell said. "I've even heard you are automatically racist because you are a white male. I don't understand that. I am just saying let's be cautious if we're not giving that message out to the kids, particularly."
Trustee Keith Wolaridge pulled the item from the consent agenda and asked that the superintendent's equity committee research the syllabus. He said the topics of social justice and critical race theory are dear to him and he wants to shy away from sound bites in this discussion.
"It's a supremely nuanced conversation and if we're not careful, we can get into low-brow conversations with name-calling and insinuations and putting people into boxes where they don't belong," he said.
Board member J.P. Lake joined him in asking the equity committee to do a deep dive on the issue. He vowed to attend Evans-Santiago's 101 class. He said he had read part of her book and not only found nothing objectionable, but also related to parts of it. He appreciated a chapter about students at Grimmway Academy in Arvin.
"I'm not saying, 'No, not ever,' to the 102 course syllabus. For me, I'm thinking that we need to pause, and the board needs to catch up," he said. "There are some concerns that we need to discuss. There's also some things that you're trying to help us learn with this syllabus and that even Dr. Hodgson saw."
Lake said the board should have been addressing this issue more proactively.
"Shame on us that we haven't been thinking ahead, because this is our job," Lake said.
Trustee Bryan Easter said he liked the first course Evans-Santiago offered and its emphasis on communication. But he echoed some of the parents and community members who spoke up when he said he values diversity but "this must come without division." He said he heard from many parents and teachers worried about this course.
"I do not believe this new course of study is timely given the last year that we just encountered nor do I believe that the entirety of its content — the whole thing — reflects what we truly mean by excellence in education," said Easter.