CENTENNIAL | Nearly 100 people turned out Wednesday to the final Cherry Creek school board meeting of the year to talk for hours about the critical race theory controversy and how diversity is taught in local classrooms.
The topic wasn’t on the agenda.
Cherry Creek board meetings rarely go over two hours, but Wednesday’s meeting stretched for more than five hours, going into the early hours of the next day. The board allowed everyone signed up for public comment to have their say.
Most of the people who spoke were there to push back against a campaign to ban “critical race theory” in schools that has swept the nation in recent months.
Critical race theory is a complex catalogue of ideas that expand on the foundation that racism is a systemic cultural construct rather than a personal foible. Education experts say it’s a high-level legal framework not taught at the K-12 level, including at Cherry Creek. For many the phrase has become a catch-all term for education about race and racism.
“Critical race theory is not a curriculum, and it is not something we have adopted in Cherry Creek schools as a curricular resource,” said Assistant Superintendent Sarah Groebel.
A presentation at Wednesday’s meeting focused on how the district will modify history and civics classes to include more historical contributions by minorities. That change was required by a 2019 state law.
The handful of people who spoke against critical race theory at the meeting voiced fears that it would divide students by skin color, teach students of color that they could not succeed because of their race and teach white kids that they should feel bad about themselves.
“Children are not oppressors, and you teachers need to realize that enslaving ideals they are chaining our kids to is not a commitment to excellence,” said Schume Navarro, a parent and the first person to speak.
“I won’t pay for a curriculum that teaches my child to hate themselves for the color of their skin,” said Laura Felix. “I don’t want our kids to be in boxes of victims and oppressors. It’s depressing and wrong.”
School board and administrative officials did not speak to the outpouring of comments, which is normal for issues not on the agenda.
Other speakers pushed back against that framing and questioned what the opposition to critical race theory was actually about. One described the backlash as “fear of a changing world.”
“Do we think it’s divisive to minimize the impacts of the cruelty of slavery?” parent Brian McKinney asked. “Are we only saying that ‘divisive’ is when some white folks feel uncomfortable?
“The only reason they’re talking about critical race theory is to stop all equity work in this district,” he said. “As soon as this district starts talking about equity, starts talking about helping every student, then there’s always backlash.”
Many speakers said that not teaching students about the realities of racism won’t make it go away, so it needs to be addressed. Parent Michael Eden used the metaphor of teaching about WWII to detail his support for talking about the darker parts of U.S. history, even if it can be uncomfortable.
“Teaching kids about Hitler is not anti-German, it’s just reality,” he said. “And this country desperately needs to have a better shared understanding of reality.”
Many speakers were alums of the district and said that as people of color they did not feel like they received a culturally responsive education, and they want better for current students.
Kasey Ellis, president of the Cherry Creek Education Association, said that attempts to dictate what teachers can and cannot teach are ill-advised.
“What a good teacher knows is we can’t just avoid or lie our way through our challenges,” she said. “We must find age appropriate ways to tell hard truths about our country’s past and present in order to prepare our kids to create a better future.”