UPDATED 8/24/21 to include information on CRT dark money campaigns and additional information on masking requirements in local public schools – JL
The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.
If you follow local print, online and/or social media, you know that there are decisions being considered that will affect the long-term conduct of secondary education in the Quaker Valley School District.
Those decisions will have ripple effects on the future condition of surrounding residential properties and the public roadways that convey residents, employees, students, and commercial vehicle traffic. The value of those surrounding properties, and the tax base of multiple municipalities, will also be impacted. Let’s not forget everyone’s property tax bill down the road.
As the process continues to unfold, there is considerable disagreement on the essential components of the entire plan. Multiple sources of information, both in print and online, both extol and dispute the plans being implemented.
The websites that concern themselves with the high school project are comprehensive in the scope and specificity of the information used to bolster their respective viewpoints. The QV Strong website does a good job of distilling these facts into bullet points and graphics, while linking to the more specific reports for those interested. The same goes for the school district’s Blueprint QV site.
Along with the information resources, the organizations behind these sites have apparently committed to transparency in both their identities and intentions. Both QV Strong and Citizens for a Great School (CGS) list their steering committee members on their respective websites.
The commitment of CGS was also evidenced by statements in the ad pictured above, indicating their intent to pursue legal action until the Board authorizes a referendum on the project, as well as to “legally oppose the issuance of any more debt” due to their perceived assertion that the Board is engaging in creative financing in order to circumvent the state law that would require a citizen vote on the project.
Along with the district awarding a contract for the design of the new campus, attention now appears to be focused on the Leet Township Zoning Hearing Board, which began hearings on June 28 regarding the request for special exception to build the high school on what is known as the “hilltop site”. The township website home page includes the next scheduled date and time, along with a link to remote participation via Zoom. The hearing was scheduled to resume today, with no additional dates as of this writing.
It is worth noting that these hearings are being conducted during the business day. Reports received from those who have been there gave attendance estimates at over 100, with the audience comprised of “mostly lawyers“. This scheduling may also help local media such as the Sewickley Herald and the Allegheny Times to cover the proceedings. One can only hope…
At this point I’m not going to go further into the specific arguments for and against the project – the involved parties have already done most of that. I remain interested in the deliberations of the Leet Zoning Board as they pertain to the necessary approvals, as well as the upcoming municipal general election and how much the project plays into any campaign maneuvering by the various candidates for Leet Commissioner and/or the Quaker Valley School Board.
I also believe that the school district is prepared to appeal in court any zoning outcome that does not suit their liking. Lawyers, along with concerned, informed citizens, will be kept busy.
Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices – just recognize them.
In the midst of the high school project debate, another local effort has begun to discredit and outright ban the instruction of Critical Race Theory (CRT), defined by Wikipedia as –
..a body of legal scholarship and an academic movement of civil rights scholars and activists in the United States that seeks to critically examine U.S. law as it intersects with issues of race in the U.S….CRT examines social, cultural, and legal issues primarily as they relate to race and racism in the United States.
Reading further into the Wikipedia entry, it seems that the practice of CRT relates more to the pursuit of academic and legal research than the development of K-12 school curricula.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette appears to be the most active local media outlet reporting on how the issue is impacting Pittsburgh area schools, including two in the immediate area that are detailed below.
WESA reported Tuesday on an amendment passed by the Mars Area school board that attempts to restrict several concepts from classroom discussion under the guise of “patriotism”. Even considering that this district sits squarely in Daryl Metcalfe territory, this decision is disturbing in the land of the free.
The best explanation of the origins and recent history of CRT that I’ve found has come from the New York Times. Author Jacey Fortin wrote –
Critical race theorists reject the philosophy of “colorblindness.” They acknowledge the stark racial disparities that have persisted in the United States despite decades of civil rights reforms, and they raise structural questions about how racist hierarchies are enforced, even among people with good intentions. (emphasis mine)
She also quoted the law professor credited with coining the name “Critical Race Theory” –
“It’s only prompted interest now that the conservative right wing has claimed it as a subversive set of ideas”.
Yale University historian Timothy Snyder expanded upon this in an excellent essay in the New York Times Magazine from late June. He argues that recent efforts to legislate away the mention of CRT and related topics, what he terms “memory laws”, are reminiscent of the tactics of the Stalinist USSR and other totalitarian regimes –
Democracy requires individual responsibility, which is impossible without critical history. It thrives in a spirit of self-awareness and self-correction. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, is infantilizing: We should not have to feel any negative emotions; difficult subjects should be kept from us. Our memory laws amount to therapy, a talking cure. In the laws’ portrayal of the world, the words of white people have the magic power to dissolve the historical consequences of slavery, lynchings and voter suppression. Racism is over when white people say so.
With all of that in mind, it’s kind of surprising when things like this start popping up around town –
At the bottom of the above flyer is a link to the website for Parents Defending Education, which describes itself as “a national grassroots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists imposing harmful agendas“.
According to at least one education blogger, Parents Defending Education functions more like an Astroturf group, defined as “masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.”
Other reporting has found similar disputes around the country tied to a national attempt to weaponize the CRT controversy for targeted political gain, using Astroturf groups and other strategies. A report in The Nation in mid-August also linked this activity to what they termed “the network of radical free-market capitalist think tanks and action groups supported by billionaire businessman Charles Koch and his late brother David.”
The local debate has included several letters to the editor in the Herald over the last few months. Two of the letters came from area resident Charles E. “Ed” Wolfe III, who has also touted a new website, ostensibly titled qvparents.org.
Both the site and Mr. Wolfe’s second Herald letter call out several QV officials for comments allegedly made at the school board meeting of June 15, for which published minutes are not available as of this writing. Mr. Wolfe writes –
In recent communications with the Quaker Valley school board, the board president stated that the board has “not adopted policies in the past 65 years since the founding of Quaker Valley that ban” materials and “and will not do so at this time.”
They further explained, “that a decision not to ban an idea does not indicate an endorsement of that idea or topic.”
Oh, I beg to differ. The board is responsible for the curriculum they allow by virtue of their vote or lack thereof.
It’s hard for me to see how one thing has to do with the other. I’m sure the Board does not endorse the foundational thinking behind Communism, Fascism, and Ethnic Cleansing, nor Manifest Destiny and the resulting decimation of Native American culture. Yet we educate our children about them – among other reasons, it’s important not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The website also takes issue with several textbooks and other media for alleged inaccuracies, and/or the manner in which information is presented that could allow for the introduction of allegedly nefarious CRT principles.
One example cited is Move This World, which describes itself providing “social emotional learning (SEL) training with the use of interactive videos, movement, and creative expression to help students, educators, and families develop emotional intelligence skills for long-term wellbeing”. Per Mr. Wolfe’s analysis, Quaker Valley currently utilizes this resource in grades K-6.
He includes the following in his narrative –
With respect (sic) the verbiage in the videos, they do not teach CRT; however, being it is only a set of prompts that are facilitated by the teacher, it leaves plenty of room for CRT-inspired discussion. Additionally, the curriculum progressively adds CRT-suggestive prompts as the grade level increases…The more troubling aspect of this curriculum is the apparent direction it is intended to go.
The founder, Sara LaHayne does not hide her support of CRT. On the curriculum website there are a few articles that show-case Mrs. LaHayne’s racism and anti-American comments.
In this instance Mr. Wolfe’s objections are not specific to any curriculum content, but instead with the opinions expressed by Ms. LaHayne. Some of these include –
The United States of America would not be what it is today without enslaving millions of people of color.
These are uncomfortable truths for many Americans, but it is the truth. Whether we like it or not, our shared history shapes the context of today.
We have a responsibility to confront our history, not to protect the icons of a shameful era.
I frankly cannot see where the above can be construed as “racist” and/or “anti-American“. The irony of using these types of tactics to attack an alleged political agenda is hard for me to shake off, but is also somewhat familiar…
Contacted in mid-July, School Board President Jon Kuzma stated that he was having difficulty ascertaining exactly what Mr. Wolfe and his group were trying to accomplish, as QV does not presently teach CRT at any grade level and has no plans to.
I mentioned the concerns about curriculum – in response, he detailed the process in which teachers, administrators, and the Board evaluate, recommend, and approve curriculum changes over the course of several years.
When contacted a few days later, Mr. Wolfe stated that he is the author of both the local flyer and the QV Parents website. Along with concerns about curriculum, Mr. Wolfe acknowledged that while CRT is not a typical subject in the K-12 environment, teachers could insert CRT principles into classroom instruction.
Mr. Wolfe asserted that CRT has its roots in Critical Theory, which he claimed comes from Marxism, and that teachers cannot be allowed to teach, or even personally espouse, anything that approaches this.
Critical Theory is defined by Wikipedia as “an approach to social philosophy that focuses on reflective assessment and critique of society and culture in order to reveal and challenge power structures“. This theory has its roots in the Frankfurt School, a German school of social theory that has stated their works derive from the writings of Karl Marx, but also those of Sigmund Freud, Immanuel Kant, Georg Friedrich Hegel, and several others. Wikipedia also describes the school’s approach as “critical of capitalism and of Marxism–Leninism as philosophically inflexible systems of social organization”.
If this also sounds a bit advanced to be batting about when discussing the K-12 public schools, don’t feel bad – you’re not alone.
When I pointed out to Mr. Wolfe that any concept or ideology could be attacked in the same manner as he has attacked CRT, he replied that there is a difference between teaching and indoctrination, and that “kids don’t see race unless they are taught to see race“.
I believe that children learn about race and identity in a more holistic manner – much like anything else they experience as part of their environment. Mari Matsuda, a CRT researcher and law professor at the University of Hawaii, stated something similar as part of Jacey Fortin’s Times story –
I see it like global warming. We have a serious problem that requires big, structural changes; otherwise, we are dooming future generations to catastrophe. Our inability to think structurally, with a sense of mutual care, is dooming us — whether the problem is racism, or climate disaster, or world peace.
This reminds me of a lovely poem – Children Learn What They Live – but it shouldn’t take a poem to understand this.
We proclaim ourselves as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
It’s difficult for me to avoid comparing the assertions of QV Parents and Mr. Wolfe to McCarthyism of the mid-20th Century. Their rhetoric appears to call for the elimination of so-called political speech in both curriculum and classroom, and advocates for political litmus tests of those who author teaching materials and/or who may teach from those materials.
As a citizen who highly values the liberties granted by our Constitution, and the sacrifices made by those to both protect those liberties and strive for their application to all Americans, I object to any attempt to ban a concept or course of study, or restrict the exploration of our history.
When asked about any future plans, Mr. Wolfe stated he is awaiting the scheduled school board meeting on August 30, when he expects QV Superintendent Tammy Andreyko to introduce an initiative for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, possibly modeled after a similar program at Kent State University. This is apparently based on a quote attributed to Dr. Andreyko that is featured on the QV Parents home page.
If Quaker Valley is considering such an initiative, they would do well to investigate the efforts of Sewickley Academy, and the school’s actions in the wake of backlash similar in tone to Mr. Wolfe’s efforts.
After the above ad hit Page 3 of the June 24 Herald, I visited the Sewickley Parents website and looked around for substantive information about exactly what their concerns were. After reading their mission statement and a small blurb about the Learning for Justice program of the Southern Poverty Law Center, what struck me most significantly was what the site lacked – a listing of the leadership and/or those who had joined the group.
I then started looking at the Academy’s website for additional information. What I found was extensive – the school’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice (DEISJ) initiative, announced in April of this year. There is access to considerable detail concerning the strategic plan and standards that support this effort – too much to explore in this forum, but nonetheless there (for now) and available for review.
When the initial story broke at the beginning of July that Head of School Kolia O’Connor had been replaced – after an anonymous letter had been sent to parents on June 1, and one day after the Herald ad was published – I sought out comment from both the school and the Sewickley Parents group.
Contacted on July 2, Academy spokesperson Kaitlin Busch would not comment beyond the contents of a June 30 press release. Sewickley Parents did not respond to an email request for contact.
This reticence was shaken after the July 21 dismissal of four additional administrators and a teacher, including the DEISJ Coordinator. The media feeding frenzy that followed was impressive and somewhat surprising.
Mr. Frazzini describes himself on LinkedIn as “a disruptor that love (sic) a challenge“, and adds, “I believe our current educational processes are broken and that they need significant disruption”.
Additional media outlets reported on the beginnings of push-back against the approach taken by the Academy’s Board of Trustees. KDKA-TV Investigator Andy Sheehan highlighted objections raised by another parent group.
The July 27 Post-Gazette embellished this further by putting a name to those objections, and also elicited comment from the organization that accredits the Academy and over 100 other private schools statewide.
Mr. Sheehan also did a followup report, labeling the Academy community a “hotbed of division“. This included an interview with Dominic Odom of Concerned Sewickley Parents, which in very short order has established an online presence with a comprehensive website of its own.
Most recently, this group issued a statement following their July 30 meeting with Interim Head of School Ashley Birtwell and the current Board of Trustees. Among other revelations, this statement provided the news that two African-American trustees have resigned, and also outlined what the group is requesting of the Board in the near term.
Sewickley Parents also posted a statement to their website that, while undated, makes reference to rumor control, media coverage, and the recent administrative changes. The document also provides a brief historical overview of the group’s activities, and attempts to defend their collective anonymity.
They also attempted to reinforce their commitment to diversity and inclusion, while pointedly omitting the words “social justice“. This is defined by Wikipedia as “the relation of balance between individuals and society measured by comparing distribution of wealth differences, from personal liberties to fair privilege opportunities.” Concerned Sewickley Parents has objected to the removal of the words by the Academy in several documents and web references.
The Academy Board also faces a racial discrimination lawsuit from one of the fired administrators. The Pennsylvania NAACP released a response to the firings and resulting litigation. The organization’s Coraopolis branch also issued a statement that is worth taking the time to read.
At about the same time, Ms. Birtwell released a comprehensive letter to the school community, which was also reported on by the Herald. Ms. Birtwell stated that after several meetings with various stakeholders, she had decided to “share the bare facts” about the challenges being faced and the rationale behind the actions taken.
The letter states in part that the changes made by the Trustees were primarily in response to declining enrollment of over 1/3 since 2002, but also cited surveys conducted in 2016 of faculty and staff that identified “toxic” components within the culture of their working environment.
The letter is worth reading, but what I thought noteworthy is what it did not mention – what role, if any, the anonymous letter, public advertisement, and subsequent meetings with Sewickley Parents had on the timing of the staffing changes.
If they played a role in those decisions, the trustees come across as overly sensitive to criticism and the airing of a private school’s dirty laundry. If they didn’t, then with 20 years of enrollment data and five-year-old survey results, what took them so long?
It would appear that Mr. Frazzini and his group got the “disruption” they were looking for. With an equally vocal and committed opposition now mobilized in response, it’s unclear what Sewickley Academy, and as a consequence its students, stands to gain or lose from all of this.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
from the Declaration of Independence
When I attended Sewickley Academy in the mid-1970s, the above words were prominently displayed on the façade of the Senior School.
The two disputes detailed above share some important commonalities – a backlash at the national level against a perceived attempt to attack American history, and the seeming emergence of a single individual as the point person for a consensus of the anonymous.
I get the impression that the genesis of both QV Parents and Sewickley Parents was driven by the efforts of one individual or a small group, and then introduced to attract followers via the actual and virtual marketplaces of ideas.
This isn’t really Astroturf, but it’s not grassroots either. Maybe it’s just a single square patch of sod in an otherwise unremarkable dirt lot.
There appear to be other legal and historical precedents that show the potential danger of this activity to our benchmark civil liberties. These are enshrined in our Constitution and bolstered by judicial precedent and public opinion, as expressed by the consent of the governed at the ballot box.
While a private school isn’t necessarily bound by some of those laws and precedents, let’s hope that the Academy recognizes them as part of their developing operational culture.
For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
We have a granddaughter who will start Kindergarten next week at Edgeworth Elementary. While her mother and grandmother have been wading through the paperwork associated with that, I’ve been trying to follow developments within the QV District as it relates to their federally mandated Health and Safety Plan.
Initially approved by the Board on July 27, a decision was made to revisit the plan, possibly in the wake of increased cases of the COVID-19 Delta variant in Allegheny County.
This process has been difficult for area school districts in the absence of a statewide mask mandate as was the case last year. Adding to the difficulties are the objections of parents to masking requirements, resulting in acrimonious exchanges across the country between parents, staff, and board members. One glaring local example last week that drew national media attention disrupted the otherwise rarefied decorum of a Fox Chapel Area school board meeting.
North Allegheny schools announced the reversal of a previous policy allowing for parental choice in masking indoors, and then met on Wednesday evening to a full house and over 400 attendees via a live stream. The Board wound up reversing the reversal, and stripped the Superintendent from policy-making authority in this area. Several parents and students quickly responded with a federal lawsuit, which resulted in a court order reversing the policy yet again.
The aforementioned Mars Area school board met on Tuesday and will keep masks optional, despite respectful but spirited comments from parents and board members. The board in neighboring Seneca Valley elected to require masks in the face of vocal opposition, reportedly becoming the first school district in Butler County to do so.
The Quaker Valley board also met on Tuesday to discuss and decide upon the proposed plan revision. I was able to listen in for a short while via Zoom, and caught some of the public comment and board deliberations.
The citizens in the audience echoed many similar concerns as those expressed elsewhere – parental rights, individual liberty, mental health of children, differing views on the overall efficacy of masks and/or vaccination. Others pointed out the lack of masks required for students participating in athletic events.
For its part, the Board was equal measures of concern and resolve in doing what was necessary to keep from shutting down once they got going. Board member Geoff Barnes stated his desire to “do everything to keep students in the buildings“, a reference to missed days and online or hybrid classes.
Board member Sarah Heres added that co-curricular activities are equally critical and important, and that masking will “protect during the day” while increasing the possibility that these activities, including team sports, can take place.
The board’s decision, on a 6-2 vote, requires masks be worn inside all schools and indoor events when the risk of transmission is determined by the appropriate health authorities to be Substantial or High. Using the framework pictured above, the mask requirements are scalable based upon changes in that risk level, as determined by those authorities.
The board’s decision is commendable, as is the district administration’s level of preparedness and situational awareness.
In a letter sent via e-mail late Tuesday night, the district also stated –
We empathize with the frustration of what has become a long period of inconvenience during this historical pandemic. We do not make these decisions lightly nor in haste. However, we believe that universal masking in our schools is the most responsible decision we can make at this time. This approach will allow us to keep students in schools and give us the ability to offer on–campus instruction to all our students.
There are many who disagree with the decision, and they largely maintained their decorum while expressing their opinions. I would like them to consider their position from a historical standpoint.
Nearly 70 years ago, parents in our area were asked to volunteer their children for participation in some of the first human testing of the Salk polio vaccine. This was a voluntary program, conducted in cooperation with local pediatricians and the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children.
The late Sewickley pediatrician Dr. Robert D. Nix was quoted by the Herald in 1985 –
Granted that this was polio – a disease with an often tragic cause-and-effect relationship with infection. Nevertheless I’m wondering how the Salk trials might have progressed if the parents objecting to masks today – some of whom may be descendants of those parents in 1953 – declined to participate using some of the reasons expressed this week.
We’re hoping for a safe, productive, and healthy school year for Violett and the rest of the class of 2035, as well as all students, teachers, and staff starting another year with the pandemic and politics still in their midst.
I’m hoping that both conditions will be tempered to a manageable level in the months ahead.
Have a good rest of the summer.