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Will strong DeSantis views on race stop Florida schools’ diversity push?

A movement started amid last summer’s protests is running up against the governor’s push to tamp down classroom discussions about race.
Protests like this one last June in St. Petersburg over the murder of George Floyd led to a widespread racial reckoning that has included a rethinking of how some subjects are taught. Top educators in Pinellas and Pasco counties are making changes to their curricula even as Gov. Ron DeSantis and others work to tamp down discussion of certain racial issues in classrooms.
Protests like this one last June in St. Petersburg over the murder of George Floyd led to a widespread racial reckoning that has included a rethinking of how some subjects are taught. Top educators in Pinellas and Pasco counties are making changes to their curricula even as Gov. Ron DeSantis and others work to tamp down discussion of certain racial issues in classrooms. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 1, 2021|Updated Jun. 8, 2021

In the days after the murder of George Floyd last year, schools across Florida and the nation heard pleas for an education system that better reflected society’s diversity.

Requests came for more detailed lessons about the history of race relations, and for different books and other materials from all corners of the public square. People pushed for a more diverse group of teachers and administrators, better trained to understand and interact with kids of different races and cultures.

Many rose to the call, including the Pinellas and Pasco county districts. They convened curriculum review committees and diversity task forces, aiming to tackle the inequities within their walls that students and others had identified.

Related: Protests bring race, equity into focus for Tampa Bay school districts

Months later, as they work to make changes, a push by Gov. Ron DeSantis and others threatens to dampen those efforts.

Politics and critical race theory

DeSantis has launched an assault on the use of “critical race theory” in schools, saying efforts to infuse race into lessons as a primary factor teaches children to hate the nation and each other. More than a class or program, the theory is a perspective some teachers employ to explain the role of racism and race in American society, in the past, present and looking forward.

Gov. Ron DeSantis says critical race theory has no place in public schools. [JOE BURBANK  |  Orlando Sentinel]
Gov. Ron DeSantis says critical race theory has no place in public schools. [JOE BURBANK | Orlando Sentinel]

The governor’s campaign, which education commissioner Richard Corcoran is working to put into effect through administrative rule, has roused some Floridians to call for an end to equity and diversity activities in their schools. Many equate such efforts with the approach that DeSantis has blasted, regardless of whether they’re connected, and want any vestiges of such movements eliminated.

A Hernando County lawyer recently wrote a widely shared opinion piece for the Hernando Sun newspaper, in which she decried the spread in schools of “radical platforms” called equity or diversity education.

“Our education system is being turned upside down with the use of soft words to cover the meaning of what is happening, and it is happening without parents and grandparents being made aware,” wrote Arlene Glantz, the wife of former Hernando School Board member Mark Johnson.

Several Palm Beach County residents took offense at their district’s equity statement, which spoke of “dismantling structures rooted in white advantage.” The School Board recently removed the language.

Related: What is critical race theory, and why are conservatives blocking it?
St. Petersburg High School student Yamira Patterson co-authored a petition that asks for sweeping changes to correct racial bias in the Pinellas County Public Schools.
St. Petersburg High School student Yamira Patterson co-authored a petition that asks for sweeping changes to correct racial bias in the Pinellas County Public Schools. [ Courtesy of Yamira Patterson ]

St. Petersburg High rising senior Yamira Patterson, whose petition against racism in school prompted the Pinellas district to establish a curriculum review committee, said she hoped the pushback won’t undo the work that’s begun locally.

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“It’s obviously an effort to solidify white supremacy in a place of power,” said Patterson, who sat on the committee. “I think it comes out of fear. They’re afraid that change is coming.”

She contended that U.S. history and civics lessons need to include more viewpoints that explain how race, wealth and other issues affect peoples’ lives and the decisions that get made in government, law and society. Those are the facts, Patterson said, “and the fact of the matter is it’s not all good.”

Parent pushback

Pinellas expects to add new materials to English and history classes in the fall, and to continue its review of other courses moving forward. Associate superintendent Kevin Hendrick, who has overseen the district’s review of language arts and social studies materials, acknowledged that the move to incorporate more voices and views into the curriculum has encountered some resistance.

The “culturally relevant teaching” model the district is pursuing has the same initials as critical race theory, which has complicated matters.

Hendrick shared an email from one parent who wrote that proposed changes might appear harmless, but could become the “gateway to radical, unsupported, liberal ideals and indoctrination.” This parent added that children should not have to apologize for their skin color, or face questions about whether they are oppressors.

Such reactions have worried some educators, who see importance in providing students context about the nation’s history and ensuring a variety of perspectives are included.

“Social studies teachers are going to be the most restricted,” said Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Nancy Velardi, who had begun hearing from members about the brewing scenario. “They’re not going to be able to discuss certain issues from this country’s past.”

Pinellas associate school superintendent Kevin Hendrick.
Pinellas associate school superintendent Kevin Hendrick. [ Pinellas County Schools ]

Hendrick, previously a high school history teacher, contended that as long as teachers teach the state standards they should be able to use materials that are relevant and resonate with students. The standards include information about slavery, race relations and related matters.

The state does not have a required reading list, Hendrick noted, just a series of guidelines for the subjects that children should master at different grade levels.

When he explains to parents that the objective is to engage children through inclusivity, he said, “they quickly understand it’s the right thing to do for all students, including their own.”

The Pasco County school district looked at the diversity of its classroom materials as part of its latest push for diversity and equity. Some changes should become apparent in the fall as new language arts books arrive.

It also began a longer look at how it can create a learning and working environment where people of all backgrounds, races and cultures can feel included.

Related: Pasco schools seek to improve equity for students, employees

The district’s Equity Advisory Council began meeting in March. Members reviewed a first draft of an equity statement this past week. It supports valuing diversity, prioritizing inclusion and holding high expectations for everyone.

Representation matters

“This work is important because we educate a diverse group of students,” said assistant superintendent Kim Moore, who is leading the initiative. “We need to make sure that each student we have that privilege to educate can meet their full potential.”

Sunlake High School student Lydane Fosso
Sunlake High School student Lydane Fosso [ Courtesy of Lydane Fosso ]

Sunlake High rising senior Lydane Fosso asked to join the Pasco council after studying racial identity in school as part of an AP research course. When trying to create an African American History Club on campus, she discovered Sunlake had almost no minority teachers on staff.

“Representation really, really matters,” Fosso said. “When you see something, you tend to believe you can achieve it.”

She felt the need to advocate for improvements in this area and others. So far, she said, the mostly adult council has welcomed her input as they research areas to explore.

She didn’t know how well the wider community would take to the topic as it grows.

“You can’t really have change without discomfort,” Fosso said. “The biggest thing that needs to be discussed is the open mindedness that lets change happen.”

Both Moore and Hendrick held out hope that the political rhetoric of the moment will not have long-range negative consequences schools’ diversity efforts.

“I’m not worried, because it doesn’t change the standards,” Hendrick said. “We’re here to address the standards. It is talking about indoctrination. ... Will there be a teacher who indoctrinates? Absolutely, and it’s wrong on both sides.”

And it’s not widespread, he added.

Moore agreed that teachers follow the academic guidelines that the state provides. She said the state requires students learn about the Holocaust, African American history and other issues that require sensitive conversations.

“I don’t get myself all worked up about what I read in the paper,” Moore said. “My responsibility is to create conditions in which every student can be successful. When you talk to people, everybody wants that.”

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