WESTFIELD, NJ — A proposed new course titled “Power, Privilege & Imbalance in America,” designed for Westfield High School juniors and seniors, is sparking debate among the school board and community.
The Board of Education approved the course for a second reading, which will be voted on Dec. 3. Board members Tara Oporto, Michael Bielen and Brian Morrissey abstained from the vote, while all six other board members voted yes.
Amy Root, the board’s curriculum committee chair, said the course is meant to replace a previous African American Studies course offered at the high school, which was stopped following the course teacher’s retirement.
“The purpose of the class is to educate and foster discussion among students about the history of minority groups in America,” Root said, adding that the format of the course was developed within the district.
“I have a high degree of comfort that this is the right circumstance and setting for this type of discussion with students,” she added. “I think it’s a very good thing that we have teachers involved that want to curate those discussions in a controlled format.”
Board President Peggy Oster agreed with Root, saying the course allows students to critically analyze the material.
“This class allows students who find this to be their specialty … to be in a class where they can have these discussions and debating issues,” Oster said.
A course content outlines shows that the course addresses housing discrimination, school segregation, mass incarceration, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The purpose of this course is to understand the barriers encountered by people of ethnic minorities and how those barriers were created and have changed America,” a description of the class states. “Students will utilize course materials to develop insights as to socio-economic status and the role this classification plays in everyday life in America.”
Oporto said she was primarily concerned with the course’s list of readings. Oporto read several reviews and comments about the books, she said.
“All of the material is great, if it’s balanced. I don’t think it’s balanced,” Oporto said. “The book list is what my issue is. If we could change the book list up, and reword some of this, then maybe we can have another discussion.”
Among titles included in the list are “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,” “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide” and “The Origins of Privilege.” See below for the full course description and book list.
Bielen also said he felt the course should be presented in a more balanced way.
“I think we might need to look at this and just tweak maybe some of the words that we’re using, and see if we can express it so it provides a more general view of race in America,” Bielen said.
Morrissey said he could not see clear connections between the course objectives and resources.
“I was left wondering to myself, how do we answer these questions based on the resources that are being, that the students are going to be referring to during this course,” Morrissey said.
Members of the public spoke during the meeting, both for and against the course.
“This is exactly the type of class that we need in Westfield. This should be a required part of our curriculum,” said Westfield resident and parent Kerri Oligino. Oligino said the class would help in part to address the “lack of diversity in this town” and allow students to discuss important societal issues.
“This is the type of course that allows our students to talk about differences and be comfortable about it,” she said.
Student Mira Mehta, a junior at Westfield High School, agreed that the course would provide opportunities for meaningful discussion.
“These stories are actually crucial to our understanding of the world we live in today, because we see these patterns repeated,” Mehta said. “A class like this makes direct connections to today’s society in ways that can actively engage students.”
Ahisha Quallis graduated from Westfield High School in 1995 and has since raised two children in Westfield. Quallis, who took the school’s former African American Studies course, said she would have benefited from the proposed course.
“This curriculum that you guys are presenting, this is the information that I needed when I was in high school,” Quallis said. “I wish I had all of those readings.”
Two members of the public, however, felt the course would create division among students.
Resident Randy Warniss called the course material “completely and utterly one-sided.”
“Teaching this kind of division, that these structural inequities are here and there are people oppressing you all the time, is that drawing people together?” Warniss said. “Is that creating some unity in our society, our very divided society, or is it further dividing our society?”
Resident Steve Christian said that the course material is “so left-leaning.”
What Happens Next?
The course will be among curriculum items up for a second reading during the next school board meeting. The meeting will be held on Tuesday, Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at Washington School, 900 St. Marks Avenue. The meeting agenda will be available Wednesday, Nov. 27 on the district website. Click here to view the full course description as proposed.