After a two-month delay, Amherst County’s high school and two middle schools are proceeding with a lesson plan on topics such as equity, social justice, stereotypes and bias on March 31 and April 1.
The equity lesson has drawn a slew of public comments, mostly from Amherst County Public Schools educators, and discussion from the Amherst County School Board during two recent meetings. During the public comments portion of the board’s January meeting, a group of educators strongly criticized the delay of the plan’s rollout for grades 6-12, which was initially set for Jan. 11. The term equity refers to “striving for culturally responsive schools,” said Hollie Jennings, the division’s supervisor of discipline and compliance.
Jennings, who spoke out against the delay, said she has feared without federal government oversight as part of a previous Office of Civil Rights agreement the division would not continue making schools “open and accepting places for all students.” The OCR agreement, which resulted from a 2014 incident involving a Black student and a white student, was fulfilled in 2019 when the division completed all requirements, including extensive training on diversity and other measures to ensure equity in discipline matters.
Abby Thompson, the board’s vice chair, said at the January meeting a personal concern she had with the lesson was a phrase “redistribution of wealth,” which she believed put the matter on a political plane that called for more review. The postponement was not out of mistrust in staff but a desire to be wise and more effective with the language, Thompson has said.
Superintendent Rob Arnold told the board March 11 a letter was sent out a few days prior to parents of middle school and high school students notifying them of the lesson and alternative lessons posted on the division’s website. Families could also out opt out if they chose and as of March 11 the division had 32 students, or 1.3% of middle and high school students, do so, Arnold said.
“We have had very good conversations with people and provided those options for our parents to choose if they so desire,” Arnold said to the board.
Thompson said the lesson brought a lot of different voices from the community and, moving forward, she feels public input is needed in areas of diversity, family life and character education.
“All those things can be sensitive subjects and may be seen as intrusive into some families’ values,” Thompson said. “I think we must respectful of our parents and give them opportunities for input.”
She said she recognizes the division provided the opportunity for public input but she thinks it was done minimally and after the fact. She added she believes policy is needed so the board can hear all views from parents and the community on such topics in the future.
“We have voices on both sides,” Thompson said. “I want to remind everybody here that the board has a responsibility to oversee policy and I believe that us not having one in this case has caused some of the tensions because we were having to be reactive. So I’m sorry if everyone is not pleased, but the whole purpose is for us as a board is to do our job we were elected to do, which is to oversee policy.”
On Thompson’s motion, the board voted to direct the central office administration to present to the board before the end of the current school year a draft policy for the equity curriculum, as well as family life and character education, so such matters can have more citizen input.
The board stressed the policy is on communicating with the public, not developing curriculum material and does not affect the equity lesson going forth in coming days. Arnold asked for more time to address legalities involved with a new policy and “make sure we do it right,” which led Thompson to revise the motion’s timeframe to the end of the school year.
Board member John Grieser said he felt more transparency was needed.
“If it’s something good, which I think inclusiveness is, then there shouldn’t be an issue with it being transparent,” Grieser said. “I do feel this board … we have an absolute duty to maintain transparency, and when we don’t do that, we don’t live up to the oath we take when we are sworn in.”
Several residents voiced support for the lesson during public comments at the March 11 meeting.
Lori Young, an ACPS parent, wrote in an email read aloud by Chair Priscilla Liggon she feels the equity lesson is essential for her child learning about stereotypes, biases and “strong persuasive efforts from the media.”
“I believe that for my son to grow into a well-informed member of society who is equipped to form opinions and make decisions, it is vital for him to be educated regarding these topics,” Young wrote, adding she trusts ACPS educators. “I commend Amherst County Public Schools for their thought and hard work for developing this lesson for the students.”
Amherst resident Sam Soghor wrote in an email Liggon read aloud he applauds the efforts to deepen students’ understanding of history and he feels the community will benefit.
“Knowledge is power,” Soghor wrote. “It is imperative that the students of Amherst receive the best education possible and the more they know about the world they live in the better they will be able to navigate it and be leaders of tomorrow.”
Madison Heights resident Bev Jones, a retired ACPS teacher, voiced support for the lesson and said students can be empowered to make a difference.
“Truth never damages a cause that is just,” Jones said.
Gloria Witt, president of the Amherst NAACP chapter, thanked school officials for endorsing equity training and staying focused on working out the lesson.
“I think as a community we have to embrace this moment and hold steady to moving forward,” Witt said. “… Diversity and inclusion is important to Amherst County because the data tells us so.”