In contrast to the heated meeting last summer, where close to 100 people crowded into a small meeting room to share their concerns about curriculum changes for grades K-5, there was only one person speaking at tonight's meeting of the Board of Trustees of Tehachapi Unified School District following a presentation by Superintendent of Schools Lisa Gilbert about proposed curriculum for grades 6-12.
At issue is the district's compliance with an agreement it made with the Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice, following the suicide of 13-year-old Seth Walsh in September 2010.
The agreement called for the district to develop a "Safe and Inclusive Schools" curriculum and at Tuesday night's meeting Gilbert recapped the efforts thus far including establishment of a district curriculum committee and parent committee that she said has met numerous times.
Last July 30, the board voted 6-1, with Trustee Patty Snyder the lone "no" vote, to approve the curriculum for grades K-5, despite pleas from parents who said they believed the curriculum introduced issues of sexuality into the classroom, treading too far into parental territory and for some, breaking religious boundaries.
Since that meeting, Gilbert said, the curriculum and parent committees have met many more times and she said that the 6-12 curriculum presented for board approval Tuesday night addressed requirements of the resolution agreement as well as concerns of parents.
After agreeing to some edits suggested by Trustee Carrie Austin, the board voted 5-0 to approve the curriculum. Snyder and Trustee Leonard Evansic were not present Tuesday night.
Only one parent asked to speak concerning the curriculum.
Bonnie Mata, who spoke passionately last summer, pleading with the board to not approve the K-5 curriculum, told board members she thought that the curriculum would be more palatable to parents if there were clear written direction to teachers, letting them know how far they might — or might not — let classroom discussions of matters related to sexuality go on.
Gilbert responded that there were discussions in the district about this possibility and she thought it could be accommodated.
Last summer, Mata's message was direct.
“Fight this,” she told the board. “We can teach this [respect] without stepping on religion or moral feeling. We don’t have to go down this road.”
On Tuesday night she said many parents had given up, telling the board that some had "thrown in the towel." After the board's vote she said the lack of parent participation in the meeting was due to many deciding to take their children out of the district.
In fact, the Abernathy Collegiate Charter School, approved by the board last September, claims to have enrolled 60 sixth through ninth grade students to classes set to begin next August.
Organizer Teresa Foley has previously made public statements that the charter school, although a public school, will not be subject to requirements of the resolution agreement that TUSD made with federal officials.
And following Tuesday night's meeting, speaking to a television reporter, she was critical of the curriculum.
Students as young as 10, 11 or 12 — in middle school — should not be learning about sexuality in school, she said. In contrast, she said, students at Abernathy will be taught about the Founding Fathers.
Board President Mary Graham, however, expressed her satisfaction with the newly approved curriculum. She noted that trustees had always wanted a curriculum that addressed concerns about bullying across the board — not just LGBT related bullying.
She thanked those who participated in the development of the curriculum and said she believed that goal had been accomplished.
Gilbert noted that parents will be advised in advance of presentation of lessons in the curriculum — and will be welcome to sit in on the lessons, as well.
What they cannot do, according to previous advice from the school district's legal counsel, is to "opt out" of having their children receive the instruction.
Lessons, Gilbert said, are in large part based upon the "Character Counts" program that has been a part of the district for years. Her favorite lesson, she said, is essentially the golden rule. Other lessons deal with the harm that can be done by gossip and the dangers of such things as "sexting" — using phones or similar devices to spread photos taken in the locker room, as an example.
Movement of sixth graders
Where Abernathy students will be housed within the district also came up at Tuesday night's meeting.
Previously Gilbert has said that the district is looking at many options, among them the so-called "sixth grade quad" of portable classrooms on the Jacobsen Middle School campus.
Sixth grade teachers addressed the board Tuesday night, stating their belief that this would damage the JMS program and set back years of effort to provide a positive, transitional environment for sixth graders who currently have little interaction with the older seventh and eighth graders in the main building of the campus.
Foley agrees that this would not be a good situation for Abernathy students.
"They need to be separate," she said. She suggested that the district might make space available at the Monroe or Wells campuses and that corporate sponsors might provide funding if needed for renovation.
The matter of where to house Abernathy students was not before the board Monday night, but a decision will need to be made soon.
Also undecided is whether charter school students, including those at Abernathy, will be allowed to participate in sports offered in other TUSD schools including Tehachapi High School. At a meeting of the board earlier in January, parents pleaded with the school board to allow charter school students to be involved in sports offered by the district's schools.
District teachers and coaches, however, said they are concerned about allowing non-district students to take part in school athletics, bringing up issues surrounding academic eligibly tracking, access to students health records, and administrative support for issues concerning discipline.
Sports and classroom space are among the items yet to be resolved between the district and Abernathy organizers as TUSD schools move toward implementation of the federally mandated curriculum while charter schools offer alternatives.