By Lonnie Huhman,
The reading of the book “I Am Jazz” at Anchor Elementary School in Dexter raised concerns among some parents, especially about the communications to them about it.
However, for others it did not and they were in support of the reading being done at a school assembly.
This book was read during an assembly late last month, which had a focus on inclusivity. It’s the story of a transgender child based on the real-life experience of Jazz Jennings, who has become a spokesperson for kids with similar stories.
A few concerned parents went before the Dexter Board of Education on March 11, during public comment during the school board meeting.
Philip Jedele read a statement to the Dexter school board expressing the concerns he and his wife had as parents of a first-grader at Anchor Elementary. He said they were concerned with how things were handled by school administration when it came to the reading of the book.
“First, given the controversial and complex nature of the book’s topic there was no specific communication to parents about the planned presentation of this book at the school assembly,” Jedele said. “While the title of the book was mentioned in a weekly Anchor email newsletter, which announced the assembly, the subject matter of this particular book was never explicitly stated.”
He said the school administration should have known about the potential concerns after seeing the recent experience the Saline school district had with the same book, so there should have been more direct communication with parents.
“Either the school failed to recognize that some families may have objections or the potential for objections was recognized and a conscious choice was made to move forward in a way that would avoid drawing unwanted attention from concerned parents and the community. We feel strongly that a sensitive topic such as this should be announced more explicitly and discussed carefully and thoughtfully with parents before being presented to young children, particularly when there are religious and other values to be considered, and importantly, respected.”
Jedele said their concerns were not addressed by school administration, and they were met with seemingly dismissive and defensive responses.
“Rather than speak to our religious and age appropriateness concerns, the response focused on describing the general purpose of the assembly and defending the chosen reading material,” Jedele said. “In our initial communication with the principal we requested either the material be removed from the assembly or an opt-out be provided. In response to these requests we were informed of no planned changes to the material nor was an opt-out offered. Furthermore, it was explicitly stated that opt-outs are not offered for assemblies. We were left feeling as if the administration minimized, if not ignored our concerns.”
He said when the opt-out was finally offered at 7 p.m. the night before the assembly, a message was sent to parents that gave no details about an alternative activity and how transitioning to that activity would be handled. He said they felt the last minute offer was a haphazard reaction.
He said the school should have at least rescheduled the assembly in order to allow parents the opportunity to communicate with administration about concerns in organized and open forum.
“The school touts an all means all philosophy,” he said. “Yet from the initial selection of a book whose content is controversial through the last minute offering of an opt-out, the school created a situation of mistrust where all perspectives were not heard or respected.”
He said they could have honored that philosophy by having that discussion. In addition, he said with the choice to continue the assembly the school could have then assured the entire school participate in the assembly by selecting another book that have similar points about respect for differences could have been presented.
He asked the school board to review: the decision-making and communication strategy used by the school administration to present this book; why the school could not nor would not postpone the assembly once concerns had been raised to allow for open discussion with parents or select a different book that would provided the same message of respecting everyone’s differences and finally, why were Anchor families only provided an opt-out as a last minute and vague option, especially after that was initially rejected.
School board president Michael Wendorf said they don’t normally comment during public participation at the time of the meeting, but he said he wanted to alert parents the question of opt-out as a policy has been referred to the board policy committee, which expects to take up the issue in the next month or so. Wendorf said the board would invite parents to participate with the committee’s meeting.
Two other parents expressed similar concerns in detail, especially when it comes to the opt-out policy, communications and transparency. It was said by one parent that the true definition of tolerance isn’t that we all adopt the same values, but that we value and defend each other’s right to hold differing opinions.
After raising his concerns about the book potentially being divisive, Anchor parent David Raney said he thinks this situation has caused some fraying in the school community, but he thinks if they can all work to find way to reach a common ground then things can be healed.
Anchor parent Steve Digiuseppe said he and his wife believe parents have the right to choose for their students, but they wanted to express their support for the school administration and the choice for having the assembly.
“We feel like the schools are the front lines of discrimination and the appropriate place to teach against it,” he said. “And we believe that the acceptance of differences needs to include all the differences, and those choices are tough, but we are just here to show our support.”
Wendorf said they take the comments to heart and do want to reach a community consensus. He said the district might be slow some times to get there, but it does want to work at reaching a place for all in the community.
In follow-up to the school board meeting, The Sun Times News reached out to Anchor principal Craig McCalla and DPS Superintendent Chris Timmis.
They were asked some initial follow up questions through email after the school board meeting, which Timmis attended.
One being, what are their takeaways from the reactions to the book and assembly?
“The overwhelming response I received from the vast majority of emails and phone calls was a thank you for leading this work and for supporting all groups of students and people in Dexter Schools,” McCalla said. “Families appreciate the work centered around inclusivity for all students.”
Timmis said, “The only takeaway I have is that we need to continue to review the best ways to work on inclusivity for all students while respecting the rights of all parents. It is a delicate balance that we will continue to navigate.”
Could this or should this have been handled differently?
“This year I have communicated the texts I have read in our assemblies,” McCalla said. “This is the first year in my 13 years of being principal of Anchor Elementary that I have shared the texts with families. The reason I decided to share the text was so families could have discussions with their children about our assemblies.”
Timmis said. “We were as transparent from the start as any school I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, one of the challenges we always face is how to be as open as possible and how much information is effective for parents to read without providing so much information that it is too lengthy for them to read at all. As we do with all situations like this, we’ll review the entire process sometime in the next few weeks to plan for the future.”
What do you say to concerned parents?
“Having age-appropriate discussions with our students about those around us will lead to a more inclusive and accepting school environment and society,” McCalla said.
Timmis answered with, “We want to be respectful of every parent’s rights and their religious beliefs. As a public school, we have students who opt out of activities because of religious beliefs on a regular basis. For example, students opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance, holiday parties and celebrations, band/orchestra concerts, games/practices on nights of worship or religious holidays, birthday celebrations, field trips, ELL support, literature in classes, etc all for religious of philosophical beliefs. We are sensitive to every parent’s right to opt out their child(ren) and in our support of every student who walks through our doors. “
What input have you received from parents?
McCalla said he has, “had many people stop by my office or send me an email thanking me, Dr. Timmis, and Mr. Bruder for creating an inclusive school environment and sharing these stories with their children. Many families took this as a learning opportunity for themselves and opened up the dialogue with their children. There are some families that voiced their concern.”
Timmis said, “I’ve received communication from families who were extremely supportive and from families who questioned the decision. Regardless of how a family felt about the situation, the communication was thoughtful, respectful, and the dialogue was one of kindness and concern regarding what they felt is right for their child.”
Can you say how many kids opted out? And what did they do instead?
McCalla said the students who opted-out of the Anchor assemblies were read other stories by Ryan Bruder, principal at Beacon Elementary School.
Overall, Timmis said it was approximately 10 percent of the kids who opted-out.
Will the book be used again?
McCalla said, “I am not sure if the book I Am Jazz will specifically be used again. We will continue to read stories based on all students and families and specifically the marginalized students and families in our community. I want all our families and students to see themselves and hear about themselves in the stories we read in our school.”
What would you like the community to know when it comes to this?
“Everyone I talked with during the past few weeks believe that we need to be kind to one another and show love to those around us. I feel lucky to live in a community that feels this way. What I feel is being missed in that statement is that we have to be intentional about our kindness,” McCalla said. “I want all my students, my trans students, my students of color, my differently abled students, my mixed family students, my students who worship in different places, my students of all socioeconomic backgrounds, my students who speak another language, ALL my students to feel included and part of the school community at Anchor. We all need to see and hear about ourselves in the images in the halls, in our books, in our discussions, and in the interactions we have with each other. When you intentionally show kindness and love to ALL people then you have created a safe, inclusive environment for all students, staff, and families. Isn’t this the school environment we want for our children?”
Timmis said, “I echo Craig’s words on this. All Means All is important to us. Teaching general kindness is a wonderful philosophy. However, the best learning happens in context. Providing specific examples of how we are all different, embracing our differences, and respecting everyone for their differences is the only way we can provide a safe learning environment for all of our students.”