The echoes of a national outcry arose at a Cherry Creek school board meeting when officials discussed changes to the school district's social studies curriculum and some community members voiced concerns about critical race theory.
“I know that we have had some additional questions in the community, and we've had multiple conversations about that: We've been very transparent about what is our curriculum and what is not our curriculum,” Sarah Grobbel, an assistant superintendent for the district, said at the Cherry Creek school board's June 23 meeting.
She continued: “I want to confirm in this meeting that critical race theory is not a curriculum, and it is not something that we have adopted in Cherry Creek Schools as a curricular resource.”
Grobbel aired the clarification ahead of a public comment period that threatened to run up to several hours and saw almost 100 people signed up to speak, according to Karen Fisher, the board president. Dozens ended up speaking. At least two commenters said they saw what they described as “militia” members standing outside the building — one commenter said they wore “tactical gear.”
“This feels reminiscent of times in our history when people tried to block schools to prevent children of color from entering,” said one woman whose name was unclear. (Names were not spelled during the meeting.)
She added: “As an adult white woman, I felt shaken by their presence. What message does this environment send to our students of color that were courageous enough to come speak today?”
What is critical race theory?
Critical race theory is a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of the topic of racism, the Associated Press reported. The theory is sometimes weighed in efforts to increase awareness about racial discrimination.
Scholars developed it during the 1970s and 1980s in response to what they viewed as a lack of racial progress following the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the AP reported.
It centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation's institutions, and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society, according to the AP.
The architects of the theory argue that the United States was founded on the theft of land and labor and that federal law has preserved the unequal treatment of people on the basis of race, the AP reported.
There is little to no evidence that critical race theory itself is being taught to K-12 public school students, though some ideas central to it, such as lingering consequences of slavery, have been, the AP reported.
Eight states, all Republican-led, have banned or limited the teaching of critical race theory or similar concepts through laws or administrative actions, the AP reported on June 24.
Why is this coming up now?
The issue arose at Cherry Creek because of a 2019 state law called House Bill 19-1192, which realigns how public schools teach history and government-related classes with a greater emphasis on historical contributions of minorities, as well as consideration of issues minorities have faced through time.
“The act mandates funding instruction in public schools of history and civil government of the United States and Colorado, including but not limited to the history, culture, and social contributions of American Indians, Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans (and) lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals within these minority groups,” according to the state legislature's website.
It also mandates funding for instruction about “the contributions and persecution of religious minorities,” the website says.
Cherry Creek district has been in the process of reevaluating the resources it uses for social studies classes in terms of alignment with the state law, according to the meeting agenda.
A commission has been meeting for the past two years since the passage of the law in 2019. In May this year, the commission gave recommendations to the Colorado Department of Education, Grobbel said.
The state Department of Education is set for a revision of social studies curriculum in the 2021-22 time period, according to a presentation for the Cherry Creek school board meeting. In the next couple years, Cherry Creek district plans to transition to the new standards, and in 2024-25, the district will implement them.
At the school board meeting, district staff recommended that the school board approve a purchase from Inquire Ed of Inquiry Journeys, "a student-centered program that integrates inquiry-based instruction and supports culturally responsive education," according to the meeting's agenda.
“This program aligns with Colorado state standards,” the agenda adds.
“This is a resource that matches our values, matches our beliefs and matches who we are in Cherry Creek Schools,” Grobbel said during the meeting.
For more information on the district's curriculum process, see here.
What commenters said
For the first 90 minutes of comment at the June 23 meeting — spanning about 30 speakers — most in the audience spoke in favor of diversity-minded teaching of history and race in schools. Cheers from the crowd punctuated some points by those speakers, and different crowd members appeared to cheer for those speaking for or against those teachings.
A commenter named Brian, who said he's a father of two children in the district, contested the idea that a change in curriculum would turn people against each other, arguing that the old way of teaching history alienates certain groups.
“Do we think it's divisive to our Indigenous folks to teach curriculum that says Europeans discovered this land? Do we think that's divisive?” Brian said. “Do we think that it's divisive to minimize the impacts of slavery? … Do we think that it's divisive to (overlook) the contributions that Black Americans made to build this country for free?”
A commenter who said she's a Cherry Creek High School alumna argued that diversity-focused teachings amount to “pitting kids against each other (based) on their skin color” and “teaching them that they are either oppressed or oppressors.”
She spoke against a change in curriculum for “my own Hispanic children's sake and you better believe for the white kids' sake,” she said.
At least a few commenters criticized the way they were taught history when they were children. Many speakers were parents in the district, and some said they had graduated from the district's high schools.
“Critical race theory and the (New York Times) 1619 Project are politically motivated (materials) designed to cancel American history and democracy itself,” a commenter named Ashley said. She added: “You stated that teachers could use the critical race theory when designing their curriculum, and that is concerning.”
Although the district hasn't adopted critical race theory as a part of its curriculum, “that's not to say that there might not be pieces that educators utilize as they're designing learning experiences … just as they would pull from other resources to provide a gamut of perspectives to engage kids to be able to see things from different angles,” Dominique Jones, the district's director of curriculum and instruction, said during the meeting.
Another commenter, who identified himself as a student, argued against the idea that institutional racism isn't present in the U.S.
“Was the Chinese Exclusion Act not institutional? Was the internment of Japanese Americans … not that? Were Jim Crow laws not systemic? I, like several other students in this room, am part of a brand-new student equity group,” the student said. “Is equity divisive? Is my heritage divisive? Is history divisive?”
A commenter named Barbara, who said she's a Cherry Creek graduate, also spoke in favor of new curriculum.
“Just as learning about the Holocaust did not make me ashamed to be a Christian, learning about slavery and Jim Crow did not make me ashamed to be white because I am responsible for my own actions,” Barbara said. “I'm responsible for learning from the past to (improve) the future.”
Colorado Community Media viewed the first three hours of the roughly five-hour meeting but could not access the rest. The link to the video only stays active for a few days, said Abbe Smith, spokesperson for the district. A recording of the meeting is available via public records requests.
“I can tell you anecdotally the vast majority of speakers at the meeting spoke in favor of diversity in curriculum and the district's equity work,” Smith said.