William Johnson was one of several Central York graduates to speak at a protest Monday night.
York Daily Record
Palleh Toe watched as two of her three children graduated from Central York High School and Pennsylvania colleges.
Her third child is in fifth grade, and the Liberia native is worried. She’s concerned her son won’t get the same kind of diverse education as his siblings.
Toe has lived in the United States since 1983. She has a master’s degree in business education and has served on Central’s diversity committee for 10 years.
She and approximately 100 others protested late Monday afternoon before Central’s school board met in the educational center across the street. She joined district teachers, graduates, current students, other parents and community members in voicing dissatisfaction with two of the board members who spoke out against the district’s proposal to adopt an anti-racist curriculum.
The new curriculum would move away from teaching only about the experiences of white people and provide more honest lessons about systemic racism and slavery.
Faculty, graduates, students and community members protest outside the Central York School District Educational Service Center on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. (Photo: Shelly Stallsmith, York Daily Record)
“I looked at that curriculum,” Toe said. “I looked at every grade and the only change I saw was talking about social justice in the high school. What is wrong with that?”
She said students need to know about social justice because they will be working and living among different kinds of people.
Board members Vickie Guth and Veronica Gemma prompted a social media backlash in August when they spoke out against the curriculum.
Guth’s comments were directed at the social justice piece of the curriculum. She wondered if the curriculum change was a result of current events.
“They are bound and determined to teach children that they are racist if they are white and they need to be changed so that they won’t be,” Guth said at the Aug. 10 meeting. “The references that were made in this committee about teaching tolerance talked about white privilege and white saviorism.”
Gemma questioned if Central had a problem. “And if we don’t, then why are we bringing this into the classroom to teach these benchmarks based on what happened in July?”
It was comments like this that led to Monday’s protest in a grass lot across the street from where the board held its monthly meeting.
Board members and other district staff parked at the building and made their way inside.
A few took pictures of the protest. Others stood at the entrance and watched for a while. One woman hid her face behind a folder and quickly walked from her car to the door.
Jill Beck, a music teacher at Sinking Springs Elementary, said she has seen a change in the board over the years.
“They are so closed minded,” Beck said of the board. “They didn’t even read it, they just said no. I think I can speak for the teachers here by saying we just don’t get an ‘us’ vibe from this board.”
Ben Hodge, a theater teacher at the high school, put Monday’s protest together because “the curriculum that binds this district has come under assault for allegedly indoctrinating the minds and hearts of our learners by teaching them to listen, think critically and challenge themselves to think of others who are not like them.”
Graduate after graduate spoke Monday about the education they received at Central, the help they got from diverse teachers and support they needed to make it through.
The speakers were Black, Hispanic and white, male and female. They ranged in age from teens to parents of teens to possible grandparents of teens.
Becky Riek is the parent of a 2013 Central grad. She is also a teacher in the York City School District.
She read the letter that was later one of more than a dozen to be entered into public record of Monday’s school board meeting in favor of the new curriculum.
“Central York School District has long shown pride in its celebration of diversity, but that is not reflected in the recent actions of this school board,” Riek said. “Systemic racism and inequity are realities in America. … Our children deserve to know and understand our history, the effects of our actions, and what we, as a society, can do to promote anti-racism and true equity in our country.”
Riek said this curriculum is not about believing that first and second graders are racist, as stated in board comments, but that “one aspect of a well-designed social studies curriculum should be to prevent racism and encourage inclusiveness.”
Central senior Unique Fields doesn’t believe diversity curriculum shouldn’t just be available, he thinks it should be mandatory for all, a requirement to graduate.
“If we are going to teach American history, it should be all of it,” Fields said. “Diversity curriculum doesn’t need to be started soon, it needs to be started now.”
Delma Rivera told the crowd she is in a unique position.
She has been a diversity education specialist in the school district for the last 15 years. She is also a Central alum.
“Central pride has run deep in me for most of my life,” Rivera said. “I have been the loudest cheerleader for this district. Most of my pride coming from how this district has embraced and celebrated our diversity.
“Right now it’s very difficult to say, ‘It’s a great day to be a Panther.’”
But, as she looked out over the approximately 100 people who came Monday, she said seeing that many people stand up for what they believe made it hard to be negative.
“It sad and shameful and disgusting to see how a few school board members have made public comments that truly enforce systemic racism,” she said. “How are our students of color supposed to feel when they see those in power do not embrace inclusion, empathy and diversity in our curriculum and every day life?”
She was quick to point out the importance of Central’s official statement after board meeting. It said the comments made by a couple of board members does not reflect the feelings of the administration of the district.
“That is really important,” Rivera said. “For the last 15 years, developing our diversity committee and diverse curriculum has been in the forefront of our district, to be a district of collaboration, not division.”
Shelly Stallsmith is a trends reporter for the York Daily Record. She can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter at @ShelStallsmith.
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