Photos by Rachael Long
By RACHAEL LONG
The final meeting of the Williamson County Schools’ Cultural Competency Council (CCC) for the 2018-2019 school year met Tuesday night to provides parents and members with updates on changes to the social studies curriculum.
The Cultural Competency Council was formed in January of 2018 to ensure the WCS district creates a welcoming environment for all kids, according to WCS Special Project Manager Erin Caceres. It’s an open group, and the council is simply made up of those who attend the meetings and participate in discussions.
Updates to curriculum
Social Studies and History Curriculum Specialist David Rector spoke to CCC members and the community Monday night, showing off the Open Educational Resources (OER) system, a teacher-designed website where more than 18,000 educational resources and curriculum are housed.
The focused changes were based on providing students with a “more complete retelling of history,” which includes some shifts in terminology and language.
Some of those shifts include the usage of “enslaved people” rather than “slaves,” “people who escaped slavery” rather than “escaped slaves,” and “enslavement” rather than “slavery.”
Rector said these terminology shifts exist for the purpose of bringing humanity to the topic and helping to remind students that “these are people, not just objects.”
Language shifts also had to do with indigenous peoples of the Americas. Rector’s presentation explained that identities of peoples move, change and evolve over time, and as such, it is best to name broad groups of people based on a shared language, region or historical relationship. The presentation listed “Algonquian-speaking peoples,” “Pueblo-dwelling peoples” and “Plains Indians” as examples.
Rector emphasized that every curriculum change or update was “100 percent” aligned state curriculum standards, something he said isn’t always true of textbooks.
Karen White, of WCS, shared a presentation on updates to field trips and the changes associated with them. The changes, she said, were based on feedback from teachers, principals and the community.
The big changes, she said, were eliminating repeated locations in back to back years, ensuring that students are “emotionally mature” enough for some locations, alignment to standards and accessibility.
“Not every child is at the same point [of emotional maturity] at the same age,” White said. “So we decided to kind of hold back those more emotional possible locations to make sure that the bulk of our students are ready to handle a sensitive topic.”
The WCS district is also implementing a summer professional development day where teachers will further learn about how to enhance students’ classroom learning before a field trip which will help to provide a real-world connection specific to the area.
Small group discussion
The council spent much of the hour-long meeting in smaller break-out groups discussing three things: how the council can advise WCS staff to make students feel safe and welcome, what the council can focus on the for 2019-2010 school year and what members of the council have learned about the school system in the last year.
Some of the items discussed for how the council could make students feel welcomed and safe included the idea of creating of a diversity-inclusive committee and members of school staff and PTO members designated as “safe people” who would be available to students.
Instead of a committee, an alternative was offered which was described as “less rigid and formal.” This idea was to have faculty advisers specifically trained to be someone students could come to with issues but be more fluid and organic for the “very unique setting for minors.”
Brandi McCutchen spoke to the need to make parents more aware of the ability they have to access their children’s curriculum, through their student’s login to the Google classroom.
“I would love access [to the OER site] but I understand that’s not going to happen,” McCutchen said. “So my suggestion is…to make [it] very crystal clear to parents that there is a way that you can monitor what your children are learning at school. It’s not a textbook, it looks a little different, but there is a way for you to do that.”
Another person recommended an archival system for any changes made to the OER curriculum, allowing parents to track the updates. In that way, the WCS district could provide parents with some accountability.
Another parent, Michelle Jones, said she wanted to see the CCC look at ways increase diversity among the WCS staff, for both teachers and administration.
“One of the things we talk about [is] helping all students to feel safe and welcome in a supportive environment, and I think one of the ways to do that is [making sure] our students in Williamson County see more faculty and staff that look more like them,” Jones said. “I don’t know what that looks like, but I think that there’s a real opportunity, and would be a missed opportunity, if in fact our group was not tapped to help identify that and improve the amount of diversity that’s reflected in the staff.”
Kalinda Fisher, a sociologist who was at the forefront when the CCC first formed in August 2018, helped lead discussions in one of the groups.
“Where do we go from here? And hopefully we’ve grown exponentially tonight and hopefully we’ll all have a voice in this conversation moving forward,” Fisher said. “Where do you see this going in the 19-20 school year? What do we need to focus on?”
For example, Fisher said the group needed to improve its own transparency.
Edina Nelson commented that she didn’t even know there were minutes for the meeting and asked where the back minutes could be found in the future. Nelson also pointed out that the meetings must be posted on the WCS district public website.
Fisher and others responded that the meeting dates were posted inside the WCS InFocus online magazine and through the CCC newsletter, but Nelson said the group needed to take it a step further.
“It’s a body that is concerned with public policy,” Nelson said. “It needs to be posted somewhere.”
In another group, one person commented that language in the classroom, especially by teachers, should always be “inclusive and not divisive.”
Another community member suggested that teachers should refrain from making political statements in the classroom to avoid politically-influencing students.
Nelson also suggested that the CCC adopt standard operating procedures or “norms” to avoid the meetings becoming “a free for all.” One of those procedures, for example, would be some kind of voting system among members.
She also brought up the phrase “white privilege,” a term she said she didn’t agree with.
“For example, here. ‘White privilege’…I don’t agree with this. So what do I do?” Nelson said. “I don’t even want to see that phrase, sorry.”
Someone else asked who decided what topics made it onto the agendas, and Caceres responded that agenda items were one of the purposes of Tuesday’s meeting.
Williamson County parent Sara Light, who has been attending the CCC meetings since their origin, also spoke to the need for more transparency in the group. She brought up the fact that the CCC wasn’t even originally called the “Cultural Competency Council.”
“It seemed to me that everything [that] happened after the meetings, we had no say in,” Light said. “One day it was called the ‘Diversity Council’ and [the] next time I got emails, it was called the ‘Cultural Competency Council.’”
“One day we were talking about [the fact that] our children feel unsafe, and the next time they were saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to change the social studies curriculum,’” Light said. “So there was no actual obvious follow up.”
A ‘Coalition of Concerned Parents’
A group of parents who have spoken out in opposition to the Cultural Competency Council and series have organized and call themselves the “Coalition of Concerned Parents” and operate a Facebook page titled, “WCS TN Parents Want Facts.” The Facebook page is listed as non-political and a parent resource.
Some of the group’s latest concerns deal with the WCS’ denial of parents’ ability to have unfettered access to the OER system.
Rector said that kind of access of the OER cannot be given to parents for two big reasons. First, the site is specifically designed for teacher — who Rector said have to undergo two days’ worth of training — and the information out of context could be misinterpreted. Secondly, he said, there are copyright laws protecting the material.
“We have been given very specific copyright privileges which includes that it is not for the general public,” Rector said. “Because this is a teacher-designed site, you have to have some understanding of what you’re looking at and how it’s used, because not everything on there, a teacher is going to use…if we just shoot it out there, people would misunderstand it completely, because it’s designed for teachers.”
In an email exchange with Assistant Superintendent Dave Allen and Rector, members of the Coalition said they were “insulted by the assumption that we are somehow not intellectually equipped to navigate the [OER] site and interpret its contents.”
The email went on to say that many members of the Coalition of Concerned Parents saw the “refusal” to provide parents with complete access to the OER as “an effort to hinder our review process.”
Rector said he has met with some parents to review the curriculum in the OER — which Rector said is a service available to any parent who would like to review the information — but Coalition members say the review process of going into the WCS district office to meet with someone who will “click on links” is cumbersome.
Rector said parents have access to whatever their child’s teachers put into the Google classroom through the student’s password and login information.
For parents with questions or concerns about the work of the CCC, Caceres said the council meetings are meant to operate with the same openness with which the council was designed to create for students.
“We’re gonna practice that same philosophy in our meetings, so if anyone were curious about the meeting, they’re welcome to attend,” Caceres said.
To parents with concerns, Rector said, “We’re gearing all our resources to the state standards, it’s 100 percent aligned with state standards. Secondly, if any parents has a concern, they’re more than welcome to come to us respectfully and say, ‘Hey, I wanna see,’ and we’ll be glad to show them.”
Rector said the WCS staff is “very open” to show the curriculum to parents with concerns. Those interested in doing so should contact Rector through the WCS office at (615) 472-4000.
Outgoing WCS Superintendent Mike Looney gave a brief opening statement before ducking out of the meeting. He said he came in to thank the council members for their work and input on the social studies curriculum development.
“That’s not real sexy work, it’s kind of the front grinding kind of work,” Looney said. “But it’s really important work because it does result in curriculum changes that impact students’ learning in Williamson County Schools.”
He also wanted to say goodbye.
“I’ve enjoyed being here, I’ve enjoyed the work of this committee, I think it’s really important that we continue to promote a learning environment where all the students in this district feel safe, feel like they’re people and feel like their voices matter, regardless of their religious background, the color of their skin, their ethnicity or what their parents’ home country might be.”
“I am proud of our district, but I will say that I do believe we have a ways to go in this particular area,” Looney said. “You see it manifested regularly in our school district, and I do want to say this: This school district is simply a microcosm, a reflection of the community that we live in and of the country that we live in. So, there’s no radical agenda here, it’s just about trying to make sure that everybody is treated with dignity and respect.”
Looney encouraged parents to “stay the course” and continue to be engaged and not let misinformation dissuade them from attending CCC meetings.
“I got into this profession to make a difference in the lives of boys and girls, I really did,” Looney said. “And I think we’ve done that together.”
Before he departed, many in the room thanked Looney with comments and applause.
Caceres said interim WCS Superintendent Jason Golden could not be at the meeting due to a long-time planned prior engagement out of town. She said Golden requested that the information collected at Tuesday night’s meeting be shared with him to review over the summer and before CCC meetings resume in the fall.
Next school year’s meeting dates for the Cultural Competency Council are already set for the following dates:
- Aug. 20 at 7:30 a.m.
- Oct. 20 at 6 p.m.
- Jan. 28 at 7:30 a.m.
- April 14 at 6 p.m.