New Trier High School, a nationally recognized school in suburban Chicago with an affluent and mostly white student population, has been planning a day-long seminar on civil rights for nearly a year. Set to take place Tuesday, the seminar, “Understanding today’s struggle for racial civil rights,” has now become the subject of a controversy that reflects America’s deep political divide.
Students will spend the day listening to keynote speakers — one at each of the school’s two campuses — and participating in a common lesson session designed to frame the discussion on race and civil rights.
Then students can choose to attend a few of the more than 100 workshop sessions being presented by teachers and outside presenters, which, according to the school website, are “on topics ranging from racial housing patterns and Native American civil rights to gospel music and civil rights activism in sports.” The keynote speakers are Colson Whitehead, National Book Award winner for “The Underground Railroad,” and Andrew Aydin, National Book Award winner for “March.”
The seminar programming was developed by a committee of more than 30 teachers, administrators and students. It has been attacked by critics, including the Wall Street Journal’s opinions section, which ran a critical piece about it with a headline that called it “racial indoctrination day” meant to “foist ‘social justice’ on the school’s 4,000 students. School and district officials say that’s nonsense, and that the seminar is meant to educate students on an issue that is roiling U.S. society and that can’t be ignored by educators.
Greg Robitaille, president of the New Trier Board of Education, said in a statement:
“The notion that this day somehow advances an agenda or point of view is just not borne out by the goals and structure of the sessions. Where appropriate, topics will be covered from multiple perspectives. However, we are not going to, for example, question the very existence of racism in furtherance of some extreme notion of balance.”
New Trier is one of the country’s highest-performing high schools and one of its best known, the setting for scenes from a number of films, including “Home Alone” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and “Mean Girls” was based on the school.
District officials recently held a meeting for parents, at which some complained that the agenda is too liberal, while others defended it as a good learning experience.
The school’s website has a page with questions and answers about the seminar, and it says in part:
Will the All-School Seminar Day support one political party over another?
The purpose of the seminar day is to help students better understand the history and current status of racial civil rights in the United States, not to promote the philosophy of one political party or another, or to connect a political party to the history of racial civil rights. Every student is entitled to hold personal political beliefs. To that end, the seminar day will not portray any political party as good or bad or promote the views of one party. Such an approach would be just another example of stereotyping and would ignore each party’s complicated history with race and civil rights in our country.
Conservative critics include Betsy Hart, a former staff member in the Reagan White House, who was quoted by Chicago Tonight on WTTW.com as saying that the seminar agenda presents a “very narrow worldview.”
“It comes from a place of critical race theory, which is a belief that all disparities between blacks and whites are caused by systemic racism and that therefore the structures of society have to be rebuilt. Our concern is that it creates this loop where you can never get out of the loop and talk about things that also create disparities — not just racism which exists and is awful — but things like totally transforming the public school system so that kids aren’t trapped in inner city schools.”
Other parents say opposition comes from a small minority of critics. WTTW quoted Paul Traynor, co-host of a podcast called “Race Bait,” as saying:
“It’s a ginned-up controversy; they represent less than 1 percent of the district. It is not representative of the community at all.”
Linda Yonke, superintendent of New Trier Township High School District 203, said in a statement:
“New Trier has been planning this year’s seminar day on civil rights since last spring. We are proud of the work that our committee of 30 administrators, faculty, and students has done to prepare for this day devoted to critical thinking and discussion around an important topic.”
The school’s website page on the seminar also says:
What research or methodology is being used to support the goals and structure of the day?
Significant research supports the idea that discussing race is not only important for students to better understand themselves and others, but also better prepares them for future discussions of race as adults. Given the significant role that race is playing in our national discussion right now, preparation in this area is important. You can find a short bibliography of sources here.
About 75% of the workshops are being conducted by teachers who have constructed lesson plans for their workshops consistent with standards for their content area and consistent with best instructional practices. Many of them are teaching versions of lessons that they teach in their classes. Those lessons are intended to teach students about a specific time period or specific person’s life. Others are designed to be discussions of contemporary issues.
The remaining workshop sessions are being presented by speakers from the community. Those speakers are sharing their personal experiences with a specific topic. We regularly invite outside speakers to share their experiences in our classrooms, and we use this same approach to inform students about a wide variety of topics each year.