Equity is a concept sparking discussion among those in the field of education and beyond.
Sam Ouk, multilingual and equity coordinator for Faribault Public Schools said the work to achieve equity started long before he was employed in the district. During the School Board’s Monday meeting, he updated the board on the district’s current equity work and tentative goals ahead. Additionally, he and the board engaged in a discussion around equity work in terms of updated curriculum being proposed at the state level.
In fall 2019, Ouk laid out details of the district’s three-year equity plan. The first year focused on building background, which included staff making home visits to connect with families and giving students opportunities to share their voices and stories.
In the second year, 2020-21, learning opportunities expanded for staff, teachers and cabinet members to attend the Institute for Courageous School and District Leadership through Minnesota State University, Mankato. The district as a whole also participated in a book study on the Courageous Conversations Protocol, which promotes the honoring of different perspectives and staying engaged while having difficult discussions.
Next school year, part of the plan involves expanding the district’s equity team into an equity committee that includes community members. The committee will set, monitor and review the district’s equity goals and give updates to the School Board.
Ouk also described tentative equity goals for the academic year 2021-22. They include increasing and promoting diverse participation in Falcons sports and activities, providing ongoing community learning that informs the district’s equity work, furthering staff’s understanding of culturally relevant teaching and equity, and working intentionally to promote Faribault jobs to people of color.
Some of the district’s offerings have built-in equity pieces, Ouk noted. He mentioned the Ninth Grade Academy, AVID, the K-Pop group, a henna club and cultural dance workshops as a few programs that validate students’ needs and interests.
After his presentation, board members and Superintendent Todd Sesker weighed in on changes in curriculum happening at the state level as well as the format of critical race theory. Seven community members had expressed concerns at the April 26 board meeting about what the changes in Minnesota social studies standards may entail. One common fear is that critical race theory, a concept some perceive as politically biased, will infiltrate public education.
“It’s my belief that instruction in our schools should be equitable and politically neutral and balanced in order to provide a balanced and impartial education,” said Board member Casie Steeves. “I really appreciate this explanation [in the presentation]. I do explicitly personally oppose critical race theory, but I do applaud the work that’s happening in our schools every day.”
Ouk said critical race theory is essentially an examination of the past, much like history, as it applies to topics like the legacy of slavery and systemic racism, and its impact today. However, on a local level, he said focusing solely on critical race theory could push aside the stories that reflect the district’s diverse population. A large number of Faribault students are immigrants and refugees.
As a person of color, Ouk said he has experienced racism in Faribault and does believe in the effects of systemic racism, but the goal with students is to overcome any barriers they may experience rather than dwelling on struggles.
To Steeves’ point, Board member Carolyn Treadway said she has concerns about moving down the road with critical race theory as a topic in Faribault schools. She said she doesn’t believe the community is ready to move into that territory and inquired how the district will keep teachings politically neutral while equipping students with critical thinking skills.
Board member Richard Olson said the state level is where most of the concern lies.
“There really is a lot of doubters out there of what exactly are they going to sneak into our education very quietly, and I think we need to really study it on a commission,” Olson said.
Ouk agreed that he would welcome discussion in a forum, believing it would help move the district forward.
Superintendent Todd Sesker expressed support of looking at both sides in terms of discussions on critical race theory. He said professors, doctors and researchers have looked at the CRT syllabus for a course offered at the college level, and positive research exists.
“… I think before we condemn CRT and say it’s not going to be in our school forever, I think the curriculum committee has to examine this, I think our staff have to examine it, and I think we have to put it in front of people so they can actually look at it,” Sesker said.
Board member Courtney Cavellier also pushed back against mistrust of experts involved with the curriculum development process.
“We have just heard this process takes years, and we build on years and years of research and work,” Cavellier said. “Our local leadership is well qualified, trustworthy and perfectly able to guide us through this process and I hope we can remember that as we continue through these conversations.”