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Lessons From Jefferson County: Protest is Patriotic and Every Election Matters

By Luke Towler (NEA Today)

Stephanie Rossi has taught Advanced Placement U.S. history at Wheat Ridge High School in Jefferson County, Colorado, for over 10 years. She probably never thought her students would one day protest the curriculum used in her class. But that was before the conservative majority on the Jefferson County School Board proposed a resolution that would meddle with the way AP U.S. history is taught, a decision that prompted hundreds of students from seven different schools to walk out of their classrooms in protest.

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It all started in mid-September when board member Julie Williams crafted a resolution calling for a curriculum that focuses on the “positive” parts of history –  a response to the College Board’s redesign of the AP U.S. history curriculum framework. Many conservatives, including those on the Jefferson County school board, believe the framework is too negative in that it de-emphasizes the nation’s uniqueness. Williams says the framework promotes “America bashing.”

Her resolution called for a curriculum review committee to review all texts and curriculum with an eye on boosting, among other things, patriotism, authority, and the benefits of the free enterprise system. It’s another stipulation of the proposal, however, that has drawn the ire of Jefferson County students: “Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” So much for the Civil Rights Movement.

By taking to the streets and protesting these changes, however,  students have given a world-class lesson in civil disobedience. In the board’s actions, these students see an attempt to whitewash history and impose censorship on their classes. They were not alone. Community members joined in and staged demonstrations supporting the students courageous stand.

Although Stephanie Rossi, vice president of the Jefferson County Education Association, hasn’t spoken to students about the protests, she said, based on her observations: “They are uncomfortable with the notion of censoring history, or a history that only presents the positive side of America’s story. They felt their rights as students were being threatened.”

ImageLast week, outside the school board meeting, Jocelyn Wallen, an international baccalaureate student at Standley Lake High School, stood on the bed of a pick-up truck and declared: “It’s about all of us coming together and realizing this is an issue and pushing for change, because that’s what we really need at this point. We need Jeffco to stand up and the Board of Education to sit down!”

Ashlyn Maher, a student leader at Chatfield Senior High School, was outraged at the dismissive comments from board president Ken Witt, who called the students the “political pawns” of teachers.  Witt also accused them of protesting “something they don’t have any facts about whatsoever.”

“We are no one’s pawns! We can speak for ourselves!” Maher told the crowd outside the school board meeting. Maher called the proposed curriculum review committee a violation of board policy and pointed out that the district already has committees, composed of students, parents and community members.

“Why is this group not acceptable to you?” Maher asked. “What other agenda are you trying to push?”

Bethany Keupp, a senior at Standley Lake, presented the board with more than 40,000 signatures collected across the nation on a petition demanding the board value the opinions of students.

Despite the opposition and growing national attention, the school board approved the review committee last Friday, but added a provision to give teachers, students and administrators a seat at the table. According to history teacher Dale Munholland, however, the provision doesn’t really change anything, pointing out that the conservative members on the board still hold the majority. And the vague language in Williams’ resolution has left educators with more questions than answers.

“If they say we can’t teach social strife and civil disorder, can we cover the Boston Tea Party?” asked Ben Thompson, a history educator at Standley Lake High.

“Will there be a list of inappropriate protests?” Rossi wonders. “It’s a compelling dilemma because then I wouldn’t be teaching the complete history of America.”

But giving the board such a prominent voice in what teachers can or cannot teach will have a “chilling effect” on other subjects in the future, Munholland said. After all, if board members decide that only the “positive” parts of history be taught, what’s next? Perhaps they will prevent the mention of evolution in science classes, or controversial literature in English courses.

To hear many conservatives tell it, teaching about slavery, civil disobedience, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, creates a distorted view of history that will damage students. Colorado state Board of Education member Pam Mazanek said that the guidelines around the teaching slavery were all wrong because they don’t point out that the United States ended slavery, in her words, “voluntarily.” “This is part of what makes American exceptional” she wrote in a Facebook post. Fox News personality and possible 2016 presidential candidate Ben Carson took it to another level when he said that after finishing a course based on the College Board AP framework,  students would be ”ready to sign up for ISIS.”

Jefferson County teachers, however, believe critics of the AP framework are missing a few important points.

The College Board doesn’t need to list the historical figures in question, simply because they know teachers will include Dr. King in their discussions, Dale Munholland said. What’s more, altering the AP curriculum would negatively impact students who want to further their education.

“The kids wouldn’t have the AP designation on their transcript,” he explains. “They still could take the AP test but they definitely would not do well because we would not be able to teach them properly in order to take the test.”

Ben Thompson said the framework is simply “better pedagogy.” In the past, he found himself teaching much more material. Now, when he covers the New Deal, Thompson is able to narrow his focus to three or four subjects of the Alphabet Soup program.

In addition, Jefferson County educators say the controversy magnifies the importance of every election – especially those that determine the makeup of school board. The three conservative board members who are driving the changes to AP history– Ken Witt, John Newkirk and Williams – were elected in 2013, an off-year election which had a very low voter turnout. And look what happened.

“I hope that people begin to pay attention and realize that elections, no matter how small, are very important,” Munholland said. “Too many people saw the 2013 election as insignificant. Now it has far-reaching implications, not only for Jefferson County but for all of Colorado.”