WESTFIELD, NJ — The school board on Tuesday approved the course “Power, Privilege, and Imbalance in American Society” to be offered to high school juniors and seniors in the 2020-21 academic year.

The course description states that the curriculum helps students “understand the barriers encountered by people of ethnic minorities and how those barriers were created and have changed America.” Opponents of the course, however, cited content in the curriculum that  has been critiqued as being unintentionally anti-Semitic and anti-Asian.

The board voted 6-3 in favor of the elective with board members Michael Bielen, Brian Morrissey and Tara Oporto casting the “no” votes. Member Amy Root, who chairs the board’s curriculum committee, said educators, administrators and the district’s instructional council vetted the program prior to bringing it to the school board for approval.

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During Tuesday night’s meeting, several board members advocated for further review and revision of the course reading list. Among titles included in the course reading list are “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,” “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide” and “The Origins of Privilege.” The full course description and reading list can be found here.

Bielen moved to delay the vote on the course until later this month or in January. Bielen said he received suggestions for curriculum materials from the public and argued the board delay the vote so social studies educations could review the suggested materials.

The board voted 3-6 on Bielen’s motion, with Morrissey and Oporto joining him in support of postponing the decision. Morrissey said he supports the idea of the course but questioned whether the course materials would satisfy its objectives.

“I cannot ascertain how the course resources would address all of the learning objectives defined in the additional units,” he said. 

Oporto, who also sits on the curriculum committee, objected to the course’s inclusion of critical race theory, which is defined by Encyclopedia Britannica as “the view that race, instead of being biologically grounded and natural, is socially constructed and that race, as a socially constructed concept, functions as a means to maintain the interests of the white population that constructed it.”

“Critical race theory — the premise of this class — has been accused of being anti-Semitic and anti-Asian,” Oporto said.

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Paul Pineiro, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and programs, said critical race theory is not the classes’ main focus.

“This course isn’t a course on critical race theory,” Pineiro said. “It’s a course that’s meant to look through a filter of race, at laws that have been in place over decades [or] a couple centuries that have oppressed.”

The two remaining curriculum committee members, Robert Garrison and Gretchan Ohlig, were both in favor of the course.

“Most students today have no sense of how society has affected the plight of people of color and minorities,” Garrison said. “[This course] is the beginning of educating our students about the many other cultures that make our country what it is today.”

At Westfield High School, 85% of students identified as white in the 2017-18 academic year and just 2.4% of the school’s students were found to be economically disadvantaged, state data shows. It marks a contrast from public schools across New Jersey in which 43% of students identified as white and 37.4% were found to be economically disadvantaged, the Education Department data show.

Ohlig said the board’s role is to determine whether a proposed course aligns with state and district standards, not to assess reading materials.

“Not once have we ever made it our business to analyze or make recommendations to the resource list,” Ohlig said. “It is our job to govern and trust the educators to suggest appropriate materials.”

Community Opinions

Over two dozen members of the community spoke during the meeting, both for and against the course. Those in favor of the course said it would allow students to learn new perspectives and foster critical discussion.

“The history of minorities cannot be sugar-coated,” said Anna Qiang, a junior at Westfield High School. “The history of racism is not a partisan issue. This will not create a divide among the races at WHS. Rather, it would educate both white and minority students about different perspectives.”

Jessica Thompson, who graduated from Westfield High School in 2009, agreed the course would expand students’ viewpoints.

“I am upset that I even have to be here to defend the fact that this class is necessary,” Thompson said. “I’m very excited for this course, because I feel like it gives children who live in our bubble of Westfield … the opportunity to look outside themselves, to take a walk in somebody else’s shoes.”

Many who spoke against the course raised concerns about critical race theory and suggested further review of the course.

“One big problem I have with this is that … the course is based on a theoretical framework of critical race theory,” said resident James Lucarelli. “I don’t like the fact that this course is built from that perspective.”

“I think it should be revised, and it should be emphasized that this critical race theory that this is based on is a theory, it is not a scientific fact,” he added.

Resident Nick Esposito said the course leaves out the perspectives of other oppressed groups.

“This course is left-political-leaning, and does not reflect the real values of America,” Esposito said. “Italian, Irish, Jewish immigrants, as well as other ethnic groups coming to America were oppressed in the past, but this course does not reflect their struggle and their point of view.”

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