BY FREDA MIKLIN
With all 200 chairs filled for the Cherry Creek School District (CCSD) board meeting on June 23, and those who didn’t get seats watching from an adjacent room on a TV monitor, Sarah Grobbel, CCSD Assistant Superintendent for Career, Innovation, and Student Engagement said, “Critical race theory (CRT) is not a curriculum and it is not something that we have adopted in Cherry Creek Schools as a curricular resource.”
Acknowledging the concerns of some parents, Karen Fisher, school board president who will step down in November due to term limits, explained, “We are all worried about divisiveness. When I hear folks question whether CCSD is teaching CRT, that question itself implies partisan politics for many of us. My understanding…is that CRT is actually a framework that has been around since the 1970’s. Is that right?” Dr. Dominique Jones, CCSD director of curriculum and instruction, responded, “That is accurate.” Fisher continued, “It is a set of tenets that make up a theory. It is not content. Just for the record, is CRT an academic subject like math or social studies that can be taught?” Jones said, “CRT is a theoretical framework that was born from legal scholar Derrick Bell and happens…at university level courses, so sure, there could be some design around that, but it is not a curriculum. It is a theoretical framework.” Grobbel added, “There might be reason to discuss that when we’re talking about a course that is specific to race, in terms of those tenets, but it is not a curriculum that we at CCSD have adopted as a curricular resource.”
Derrick Bell was “an American lawyer, professor, and civil rights activist who became the first tenured African-American professor of law at Harvard Law School.” He also served as a United States Air Force officer in Korea. Bell passed away in 2011 at the age of 81.
Kelly Bates, current school board vice-president, said, “When our family moved here almost 17 years ago, CCSD was a very different place. The diversity that we see today was almost non-existent in our neighborhood schools. I have watched as the demographics have changed over time. We have gone from a predominantly white district to a minority-majority district. I have watched as we have changed from a very affluent community to a community that is now comprised of about 35 percent or more of our students qualifying for free and reduced lunches. It is time for all of us to recognize these changes in Cherry Creek Schools…In 2021, equity work is being done in every school and in every department…I look forward to our work as a district that consciously strives to provide an education that meets the needs of each and every student.”
Grobbel and Jones explained the process that leads to changes in curriculum at CCSD. It begins with the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) which develops the statewide Colorado Academic Standards (CAS), subject to regular revision. When school districts like Cherry Creek receive revisions to the CAS, Grobbel explained, “We take those revisions, we start to dig into them, we talk about what they mean inside of instruction in classrooms and lesson planning. We align different curricular resources in order to teach those to the best of our ability. Then we provide ongoing professional learning and our teachers also collaborate in professional learning communities in order to focus on the best instructional practices…to meet…the excellence you expect…in the classroom.”
When new legislation is passed by the state legislature that impacts CAS, such as occurred two years ago with HB19-1192, Inclusion of American Minorities in Teaching Civil Government, “it doesn’t jump directly to the schools,” Grobbel said, “it goes through a process where CDE has to look at the legislation…and in this case, go from the commission and (its) recommendations to CDE. Then they go through an adoption period where they revise the CAS, which continue to be our guideline for all the work that we do in all of our classrooms.
According to the website of the state legislature, HB19-1192 specifically required the creation of a commission, “to make recommendations (to CDE) to include the history, culture, and social contributions of American Indians, Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals within these minority groups, the contributions and persecution of religious minorities, and the intersectionality of significant social and cultural features within these communities, in the teaching and content standards for history and civics.”
Grobbel reported that the commission began meeting in 2019 and gave its completed recommendations to CDE just last month. “Next,” she said, “CDE will spend this whole next year…looking at what the new revised standards should be based on those recommendations, while the commission spends the next two years curating different curricular resources that they can share across Colorado to our school districts.” Then CCSD “will have two years after we get the new revised standards to transition, plan, design, then test and refine the instruction that we are going to put in front of our kids before we fully implement (the revised standards)” in the 2024-2025 school year, according to the illustrative timeline presented at the meeting.
Lastly, Grobbel pointed out that the curriculum and instruction review process in CCSD includes partnering with many areas of the district, including 1) Educational Operations, 2) Equity, Culture, and Community Engagement, and 3) Special Populations. It is complex work and instructional materials must be continually refined. The goal, she explained, is that, “the curricular resources that we use must reflect the students that are sitting in our classrooms.”
In order to respond to the needs of CCSD students, parents, and the community, as well as the goals of the new law, Dr. Jones described a project-based learning model that was used to help revise current social studies standards for kindergarten through fifth grade. It is aligned to state standards, student centered, identifies connections to students’ interactions with their community, and contains diverse representation of American minorities’ contributions, consistent with the goals of HB19-1192. Before it was approved, a group of 21 stakeholder parents, teachers, coaches and school administrators representing diverse geographical areas, races, genders, and roles in their organization, reviewed it in great depth over several days using objective criteria.