Berlin Borough district discusses equity at board meeting

Recently approved book on racism still drawing parent feedback

The Berlin Borough School District held its monthly board of education meeting on Nov. 18 at Berlin Community School and discussed a recently approved novel being taught in eighth grade English and Language Arts.

The district had previously approved the book “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You,” as a material item for instruction, a move the school administration said was in line with the district’s cultural proficiency and equity work.  

The district had previously been in discussion through its various stakeholder groups to address equity and cultural proficiency, working with teachers, community members, administrators and students to discuss experiences at Berlin Community School.

The recently approved book was pitched earlier this calendar year by a teacher as a title that would be beneficial to eighth grade students, according to Superintendent Joseph Campisi. But the book’s content has since become a topic of conversation among parents in the community.

Board President Jocelyn Lewis read a total of five letters the board had received since its previous meeting, all discussing the book and its teaching in the district.

The first letter, by a current district student, requested that the board show support for the book and its continued lessons in eighth grade.

“Over the past week or so, my mother has learned that multiple parents are very concerned about their children reading a book about racism and its history,” said the unnamed letter writer. “I was upset to learn this, as I am enjoying this class and our classroom discussions. I find that as a student in eighth grade reading the book, it is very important to learn about racism and its history.”

The board also received four letters from parents, with three in support of the book’s place in the curriculum and one opposed to it without an opposing viewpoint being included.

Resident Fran Ballak spoke during the meeting’s public participation and requested that the board adjust its policies regarding the approval and inclusion of instructional materials that might be potentially divisive or controversial.

“I think it’s good that people are hearing both sides, some for it and some against,” said Ballak. “However, I think that kind of communication should’ve taken place before this book was put in place.”

Ballak said during the meeting that he has requested further information  regarding the book’s inclusion in the school curriculum, such as when it was first considered and by whom.

Following public comment, Lewis pointed out that the board passed a measure during the meeting adjusting its policy on passing curriculum items.

“Tonight, we passed a policy that revises how we approve parts of our curriculum, and that policy passed with all nine votes in favor of it,” she reported, “so that we are putting our curriculum through the rigor that it deserves to ensure that our children receive a quality education.”

A large amount of feedback the board received regarding ‘Stamped’ was that no alternate or opposing text is currently available in the curriculum.  Lewis also said the board is considering an alternate text for the eighth grade ELA curriculum, but it must adhere to the district’s new policy procedures.

According to Lewis, the potential title was selected from a list of books offered by a Berlin Borough parent.

Stephanie Harris, executive director of the Amistad Commission in the state Department of Education, attended the board meeting to address inclusion of the book as officials try to include more African American historical content in the state curriculum.

“I want to commend Berlin Borough for galvanizing around some critical issues and allowing yourselves to step up to the plate and have some courageous conversations in your curriculum,” Harris noted.

Board member Jeffrey Greenberg, chair of the policy committee, spoke during member comments and addressed community criticism of the book.

“It’s my belief that learning a variety of viewpoints creates well-rounded and honorable outcomes,” he said. “Critically thinking students develop a natural empathy for those around them, independent of what may be taught outside of the classroom. This allows a student to deeply understand all sides of a position, and decide for themselves what is right. “Unfortunately,” Greenberg added, “only a few recurring views have been explored over the past century, and ‘Stamped’ is but one example of an opposing narrative.”

The board’s next meeting is Dec. 16 at 7 p.m.