A polarized Chandler school community argues over diversity and equity issues

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Equity issues in Chandler gained public attention two years ago when parents protested the district’s treatment of students of color. The concerns ranged from disparate punishment of black students to complaints about the use of racial slurs.

District leaders acknowledged they had work to do.

But the solution — hiring a diversity coordinator to train staff about diversity and inclusion — has generated public backlash. A conservative group in the East Valley, Purple for Parents, and some teachers say the equity program is divisive.

The district pulled back on the diversity training last fall and is working to develop its own training for teachers.

This has riled parents who support the effort. Some 80 people, mostly in support of the program but also Purple for Parents members opposing it, descended on a recent school board meeting to express their discontent.

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The polarization was on display during 90 minutes of public comment on diversity, LGBTQ issues and sex education. People with differing views clashed over cultural issues with little apparent common ground.

A board member and the teacher’s association president later told The Arizona Republic that what is needed is a forum that allows for a give-and-take conversation in search of compromise.

That didn’t happen within the limits of a school board meeting, where each person was given one minute to speak and board members and other school leaders were unable to respond.

The district plans to hold roundtable discussions in the next month with parents and staff to discuss the equity initiative as the district moves forward.

Opposing views

Supporters of the equity program told board members that issues of racism and disparate treatment of students of color are still common. They called on the board to reaffirm its commitment to equity training for teachers.

Chandler resident Kim Mundis said she was taught as an educator that students can’t learn when they don’t feel safe. The equity training can foster a better learning environment by helping teachers understand their students’ needs, she said.

“Learning about what others need because of what they’ve lived isn’t a punishment, it’s an opportunity,” she said. “The fears about this program are rooted in what it isn’t, and frankly that’s exactly why it’s needed.”

Parent Remy Martin said her daughter has been harassed at school because of her race and that training teachers about equity can help address the issues.

But members of Purple For Parents, which organized two years ago in opposition to the #RedForEd teacher walkouts and has sought to dismantle East Valley school equity programs, said the program advances a political agenda, is divisive and marginalizes white people.

Founder Forest Moriarty said all parents want equality and inclusion, but teaching students that everyone deserves the same outcome is “an immature way” to educate children.

He said the divisive school board meeting was evidence of why such a program is dangerous.

“Teaching those types of values is exactly what you’re seeing playing out here tonight and what’s been happening online,” he said.

Why Chandler implemented equity training

The decision to take on equity training came after concerns from parents about what they said was a pattern of racist incidents, and the school board’s deeper look at demographics, discipline and academic achievement.

A district study found that about 54% of students were white, 27% were Hispanic, 8.6% were Asian and 5.3% were black. An overwhelming majority of district teachers and administrators – 85.4% and 82.4%, respectively – were white.

Black students in the district were 2.8 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers, according to the report, which was released in January 2018. The data showed there also was an achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers.

What is equity training?

The equity program is not a curriculum taught to students. It is training for teachers.

The district has spent the past two years training school personnel on how to create a safe and inclusive environment where all students can thrive.

It used portions of California-based education publishing company Corwin Consulting’s deep equity program to train more than 2,800 administrators, teachers and support staff.

The district has spent about $418,000 on training and materials, a district spokesman said.

Some of the training focuses on how to understand and interact with people of different backgrounds and life experiences such as race, gender identity, religion and family dynamics. The program teaches staff that being aware and respectful of those differences can help eliminate educational disparities and close education gaps.

The program, and the district’s use of the Corwin curriculum, received national attention in November when conservative Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson blasted the training on his show, claiming it “forces teachers to become racial activists.” He pointed to lessons on “white identity” outlining how white people can better support people of color, though a district spokesman said the district does not teach any of the specific lessons the Fox News host discussed.

The idea is not to create equal outcomes for all students but to ensure that all students have equal access to succeed in the classroom.

“Educational equity is not a social or political platform or belief system,” district spokesman Terry Locke told The Republic at the time. “It is a genuine focus on meeting the needs of our diverse student population in a culturally competent environment.”

The training has been eye-opening for teachers, and it has led to a culture shift at the district, said Katie Nash, president of the Chandler Education Association.

“You’re looking at the student as a person as opposed to a little unit that passes from K through 12,” she said.

For example, she said, some schools have changed their discipline practices to be less reactionary, acknowledging that some students come to school with “a lot of baggage.”

“They’re not a bad kid. Maybe they’re hungry or their parents are getting divorced,” she said.

Nash, a science teacher at Chandler High School, said most teachers support the equity training and are hungry for more resources.

But not all teachers are satisfied.

Jason Myers, a history teacher at Perry High School, said during last week’s board meeting that the equity program was divisive and harmful.

“The Corwin deep equity program curriculum and training works against our closely held community values by advancing the idea, and I’m quoting here, ‘that white members in our community should acknowledge our inevitable privilege and racism,’” he said. “This program pushes a divisive and destructive message that pits us against each other.”

The district recently decided to move away from the Corwin curriculum and develop its own.

The Corwin program served as a starting point, but it was not the district’s intention to use it for ongoing training, the district said on its website. The district will now work to develop cultural competency training for all staff and training on equitable classroom practices for teachers, the district said.

More than just race

Nash said she believes some residents oppose the equity program because they believe it targets white people and is only focused on racial issues.

But equity is about more than just race, she said. The program also seeks to address issues such as religious tolerance and LGTBQ acceptance.

This has led some opponents to raise concerns about the district’s sex education curriculum, which is separate and hasn’t changed in years, according to Locke.

However, in November, the district did remove teaching sex education in fifth and sixth grade and instead offered the program to parents to teach at home. Locke said that decision wasn’t a result of parent pushback, but based on feedback from staff who felt they couldn’t properly answer students’ questions because they had to follow a script. It also took three hours of training for three hours of instruction annually, so the move will free up time for teachers, he said.

That decision was raised at the meeting as some parents called on the district to reinstate sex education in fifth and sixth grade classrooms and implement a more comprehensive sex education program. Many speakers — including students — called on the district to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer through further equity training for teachers and a comprehensive sex education program for students that among other things considers the experience of LGBTQ people.

Locke said the district is not discussing such curriculum.

Still, Purple for Parents members fired back at those who called for comprehensive sex education. They said such programs seek to sexualize students.

Purple for Parents has railed against efforts to revamp the state’s sex education guidelines and is staunchly opposed to comprehensive sex education that teaches students about safe sex practices in addition to abstinence.

How to move forward

Nash said the heated discussion is, in part, a symptom of the polarization afflicting the nation. But she said she hopes the district can move forward.

The teacher’s association wants to work with the district to host community meetings on equity with different groups where people can give feedback on the training program, raise concerns and ask questions.

She said that a school board meeting is a great place to address the board, but time constraints make meaningful discussion difficult.

Another challenge is that many of the speakers at board meetings aren’t Chandler parents or residents, she said. Nash would like to see the district prioritize hearing from those who are directly affected by the curriculum.

A community meeting could draw more district parents and foster an open dialogue where people might find consensus. It also could address misinformation being shared, such as the specific courses being used, the cost of the training and who the training is geared toward, she said. The district posted answers to many of those questions on its website. 

“We’re kind of hoping to be that bridge to connect the community groups so that our board meetings end up being less polarized and more constructive,” she said.

Longtime board member David Evans agreed that a forum could facilitate a more productive discussion that leads to solutions.

“I don’t have a problem with groups coming forward, but I have a problem with them wanting to mold policy by showing up and by causing issues rather than by actually providing solutions,” he said. “Just because you bring more people and talk louder than everybody else doesn’t mean anything.”

Reach reporter Paulina Pineda at paulina.pineda@azcentral.com or 602-444-8130. Follow her on Twitter: @paulinapineda22.

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