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West Hartford Superintendent: Political Operatives Attacking Commitment to Social and Emotional Learning [Updated]

West Hartford Public Schools Superintendent's Office. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore has provided a statement in response to an article published in ‘National Review’ on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. [Updated, Nov. 17]

By Ronni Newton

An article published Monday, Nov. 15, in “National Review,” a conservative editorial magazine, states that West Hartford Public School students, including those as young as kindergartners, are being forced to learn about social justice standards, and to undergo “social emotional learning through an equity lens,” and while the article does reference information that is from the district’s curriculum, and a report presented to the Board of Education on Oct. 19, Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore said Tuesday that this is not a grassroots effort but rather an attempt to make the district’s children pawns in a partisan political fight.

The National Review article, which has the headline “Kindergarten Students in Connecticut Learn about Being Transgender in Line with ‘Social Justice Standards‘” states, “Parents from the district contacted the non-profit Parents Defending Education to share concerns over materials being used to teach elementary students about group identities, including transgender content being taught to kindergarten students.”

West Hartford teachers are not being “forced” to teach from a list of “mentor texts” referenced in the National Review article, Moore said. “These are opportunities that come up as part of the educational process,” he said. The books – about a half dozen noted for each grade level with titles such as “My Name is Elizabeth” and “Red: A Crayon’s Story” (see PDF below) – are suggestions, he said, which may be used by teachers in full, or sections of the texts may be used as part of a discussion.

Moore provided We-Ha.com with the following statement as his response to the National Review article:

“We have national forces at play that continue to seek to tear us apart as Americans, and are attempting to use the children of West Hartford as pawns in their games of division. These are not grass roots parent groups – they are well funded advocacy political arms. We understand how they use media to generate controversy. First it was the boogeyman of CRT. That clearly did not work in Connecticut school board elections. Now it is “gender equity indoctrination” meant to frighten people about what their children are hearing, even though we rarely see any concrete examples, just books that people want banned. These outsiders even attack our commitment to social emotional learning at a time when children have just lived through a pandemic. To any West Hartford parent concerned with what actually happens in a classroom, by all means speak to your teacher, principal, and those of us in central office. Please remember – you know us; your teachers, your principals, and me. I have spent more than twenty five years here, and there is no cabal in the curriculum office seeking to overturn the social order.

“To those who seek to use West Hartford as a battlefield in their culture war, I am so proud to defend what we do, because it is simple. We teach children that the child that they are sitting next to, no matter their color, their religion, or their identity, is a person just like them, and that they are their friend, and we need to be nice to them. To that child who feels different, who has been labeled ‘weird’ or ‘freak’ by the callous few, we are letting them know that they are loved just as they are, and that they have a home here in West Hartford Public Schools.”

On Oct. 19, 2021, Director of Equity Advancement Roszena Haskins, along with a group of educators and several high school students, presented a report to the West Hartford Board of Education entitled “Social Emotional Learning through an Equity Lens.” As the district, along with school districts nationwide, continues to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and a lengthy period where students were not in school full time, social and emotional learning (SEL) is being given greater attention as an “equity lever” in recovery, Haskins said during her report, to allow all students to reach their potential.

The SEL instruction in West Hartford Public Schools “is grounded in the framework of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL),” Haskins said in her report. “This framework provides a set of research-based competencies that educators and parents can model and teach as a way to develop the academic, social, and emotional skills that all students need to be successful in school and out of school.”

SEL lessons, which vary by grade level, are part of the “morning meeting” at the elementary schools, and during morning advisory sessions at the middle school level and during a “community block” period held for 20 minutes each Wednesday in the high schools.

The written report has been attached as a PDF below.

During the public communications session of the Board of Education’s Nov. 3, 2021 meeting, three parents had addressed the Board to express their concern about lessons about gender identity and race that they said were being taught to elementary students.

Their comments made during that meeting were not related to the National Review article, which had not yet been published, or actions by any national groups.

“The vast majority of children have no idea of these concepts,” David McCullough, an Aiken Elementary School parent, said at the Nov. 3 Board of Education meeting. While he voiced his support for “instruction at the elementary school level of being kind, thoughtful and most importantly viewing everyone as equal regardless of any internal or external trait,” he expressed his “strong and unwavering opposition” to “teaching children that they are different, unique, special from one another based on race, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, or that these concepts matter whatsoever.”

McCullough said he chose to move to West Hartford because of its diversity, but emphasized that “children do not need to be told that they are different or that their gender matters or that their race matters by someone who met them just a few months ago.”

McCullough clarified in an email to We-Ha.com Wednesday that he is neither affiliated with nor has he spoken to any national group alluded to in Moore’s comments.

Another  parent, Jenny Fischer, told the Board on Nov. 3 that she had learned from her Wolcott fifth-grader that they were studying pronouns – as a gender identity lesson, not as part of a grammar lesson. She said she is in support of lessons related to SEL, but concerned that teachers may be ill-prepared to deliver these types of lessons, and she expressed disappointment in the lack of transparency from the district regarding the content of the curriculum on gender equity.

It’s a conversation, she said, “appropriate to happen in the home at the right time for each family,” but in her opinion not in the classroom.

Bugbee Elementary School parent Vickie Coyle said during the Board of Education meeting that there should be an opt-out for families. A gender identity curriculum “truly feels like a real-time social experiment being conducted on my kids,” she said, and said parents have not been, but should be, made aware that this curriculum has been proposed.

Lorna Thomas-Farquharson, who was elected chair of the West Hartford Board of Education on Tuesday – and previously served as vice chair – said Wednesday that the SEL curriculum has been underway in the district for some time. “For all students to be accepted is an over-arching goal,” she said, and the community is very diverse.

Teachers and members of the community were involved with the development of the SEL curriculum, she said.

“That literature is not a required standard piece,” Thomas-Farquharson said regarding the mentor texts, but rather a list of items available to teachers as part of their lessons.

She also noted that open communication between parents and the Board of Education is “something we encourage.”

The Board is responsible for governance and policy, Thomas-Farquharson said. “We still have to stay the course, to support children growing into holistic adults, well-rounded in the way that we embrace their development,” she said, so that they feel welcomed and accepted.

“We’re committed to our children, their present and their future, and we want to support that every way possible,” she said.

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