MUNCIE, Ind. — As COVID-19 and mask mandates have caused tension at school board meetings across the country, two other topics have recently become controversial, too, when it comes to K-12 education.
Both social emotional learning (SEL) and critical race theory (CRT) have become hot-button issues, and that’s true in local schools districts as well.
During a Muncie Community School Board meeting in late September, board President Jim Williams said he and the board have received multiple messages from parents, questioning why either subject has a place in the district’s curriculum.
Whether it be SEL or CRT, Williams said the apprehension around the subject is due to misinformation and the politically divisive time that the nation is in. MCS Director of Public Education and CEO Lee Ann Kwiatkowski agreed, and later told The Star Press it’s partially due to the pandemic, with parents being more anxious about how schools operate. There are plenty of political motives.
“When you couple those two things with all the misinformation being provided on all these topics, parents are trying to separate fact from fiction and ensure that school systems are, in fact, teaching subject matter that aligns with their values,” Kwiatkowski said.
When it comes to these subjects though, Williams said people rarely have a full understanding of what they actually entail. During the meeting on Sept. 28, he took time to address what social emotional learning and critical race theory are, and what role they play in students’ education.
SEL part of Muncie Schools’ strategic plan
As the board meeting began, Williams first gave an update on the district’s Innovation and Strategic Plan, which was adopted in 2018 as Ball State University took over the district.
Reminding listeners that the plan was driven by parents, faculty, local funders and nationally recognized educators, Williams also stated that much of that plan focused on social emotional learning.
But what is social emotional learning? Where can it be found in curriculum?
“(SEL) promotes whole child development by teaching skills like self regulation, persistence, empathy, self awareness and mindfulness,” Williams said. “Practically speaking, it teaches students to regulate their emotions, to pay attention and to work well with peers.”
Kwiatkowski later told The Star Press it can be viewed as “whole child” development, and teaches children what’s appropriate and inappropriate in different settings. The subject can be found throughout Muncie schools, from elementary to high school.
The district’s elementary schools teach one SEL lesson each week, Kwiatkowski said, in which students learn how to identify and label different feelings they experience, and then reinforce that lesson throughout the week.
A middle or high school class might have a discussion about how different people can experience varied emotions while having a similar experience. This isn’t necessarily a separate lesson, but it can be part of many subjects. Educators also make them part of an advisory period in all secondary schools.
“SEL and lessons emphasizing a variety of experiences and perspectives are vital in preparing children for the complicated society they will need to navigate as adults,” Kwiatkowski said. “We believe the best way to accomplish this is through a rich and diverse curriculum that provides students with the knowledge, skills and abilities to understand themselves and the world around them in order to become successful, productive citizens.”
During the board meeting, Williams noted that SEL isn’t anything new, and it was actually named an “exemplary program” by the Bush Administration in 2001.
While educators would like to believe students come to school already having these life skills, Williams knows that’s not always the case. As a trial judge in Union County, where he had jurisdiction over criminal, domestic and juvenile cases, he often saw the opposite.
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For those questioning SEL’s place in education, he listed several reasons why a child might need that type of enrichment, from being a victim or witnessing physical abuse, to not having enough food at home, or having parents die prematurely.
With many asking if there’s a political agenda behind SEL, Williams said the only goal is for educators to provide students with a sense of competence and security that enables them to learn.
“As we’ve learned, more precisely, over the last 20 years through brain science, traumas of this magnitude for any person, especially for someone with a developing body and brain, will wreck emotional and physical habits. They are in fact a form of malignancy,” Williams said. “SEL is simply one of many tools that our magnificent educators use to help and educate children.”
History lessons do not equal critical race theory
As students watched protests surrounding the death of George Floyd and other police brutality incidents during, and before, the pandemic, critical race theory once again became a topic in education.
As the term began to pop up in mass media, Williams said he heard the phrase was noted more than 200 times during a 24-period on CNN. While it is a theory typically taught in law school, CRT became part of political agendas for both side of the aisle. From there, local families began to question if it was being taught in K-12 schools.
“When I have inquired, the vast majority of people do not have a correct understanding of what that term entails or means,” Williams said during the meeting. “As a result, misinformation and misunderstanding have filled the vacuum.”
Citing his own background in law, Williams said in the late 1960s, many law schools began to see critical legal studies emerge, most likely due to the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and an overall frustration with politics of the time.
This branch of legal studies formed the foundation on which critical race theory would later emerge, Williams said. The idea behind critical legal studies is that laws have been constructed in a way that helps maintain a status quo of power that creates economic and social hurdles for marginalized groups; whether related to gender, nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or other designations.
Williams referred to one of the biggest misconceptions about CRT, namely that it attributes racism to white people as individuals, or even to entire groups of people.
“Simply put, CRT states that U.S. social institutions, the criminal justice system, the education system, labor market, the housing market, the healthcare system, are laced with racism; embedded in laws, rules, regulations and procedures that lead to different outcomes by race,” Williams said.
When it comes to CRT in K-12 schools, Williams told the group that many believe younger students lack the intellectual capacity or maturity to address all of the theory’s complexities. That being said, it is meant for colleges and law school classrooms, not middle or high school students.
But that doesn’t mean Muncie schools won’t touch on history lessons that might often be interwoven in the theory.
“On the contrary, at MCS, it is our goal to provide a diverse educational experience that emphasizes culturally responsive and diverse approaches to learning,” Williams said. “This is fundamentally distinct from and different from any relationship to CRT, both in theory and in practice.”
“While certain events in U.S. history will not and should not avoid the specter of racism, (including) slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, for example, and the histories related there to this does not involve teaching or exploration of CRT at the K-12 level,” he continued.
From there, Williams listed several topics that would be covered in social studies and language arts classes, from the Declaration of Independence to the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Drawing from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Williams said these lessons are not to dive into critical race theory, but to understand people of different backgrounds.
“As our students attend school, they want and crave to understand the story of where we came from; and that some of those people look like me, they came from circumstances like me, and they overcame them,” Williams said. “This is a lesson which should not and cannot be lost on our learners.”
To view the whole meeting, visit youtube.com/watch?v=fW3v_xepjo0
Charlotte Stefanski is a reporter at The Star Press. Contact her at 765-283-5543, [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @CharStefanski.