By NICK GRABBE
November 19, 2009
The Regional School Committee dealt this week with the hot-button issues of patriotism and race.
Responding to a question from member Catherine Sanderson, Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez said he will send an email message to faculty and staff advising them to adhere to state law regarding the "Pledge of Allegiance."
After Rodriguez said that compliance is "inconsistent," Sanderson asked if committee members should be concerned. He responded, "It should be important to educators" because of their influence on children.
Teachers must lead a "group recitation" of the "Pledge of Allegiance" at the beginning of each school day, according to the Massachusetts General Laws. "Failure for a period of two consecutive weeks by a teacher to salute the flag and recite the pledge, or to cause the pupils under his charge so to do, shall be punished for every such period by a fine of not more than $5," the law reads.
Sanderson said it sends a "weird message" for schools to ignore the law. If Amherst were "making principled objections and proudly violating the law," she might feel differently, she said.
Rodriguez said he is from the South, "where we salute the flag and say, 'Thank you, ma'am,' and, 'No, sir.' It caught my attention that (reciting the 'Pledge') is not as widespread as I felt it should be."
He said that he is not blaming anyone, adding that he is "not particularly used to some of the stuff that seems to be cultural" in Amherst.
"I'm all for law and order and making sure we salute the flag," he said.
At Tuesday's meeting, the School Committee also addressed the sensitive issue of race, with respect to suspensions and a program mostly for students of color that encourages academic progress.
According to figures presented by Principal Mark Jackson, students from African-American and Latino backgrounds have been suspended more frequently than their percentages of the high school population would seem to indicate. From August 2008 through June 2009, African-American students, who make up 8.75 percent of the school, accounted for 18 percent of the external and 14 percent of the internal suspensions.
Latino students, who comprise 10 percent of the school, received 23 percent of the external and 22 percent of the internal suspensions.
White students, who are 68 percent of the school, received 52 percent of the external and 55 percent of the internal suspensions, according to Jackson's figures.
"This is a white, middle-class environment that is fairly easily alienating for kids of color," Jackson said. But he also said, "This is a very safe and orderly place and the level of compliance with rules is very high."
School Committee member Kathleen Anderson said, "White people aren't intentionally being hostile; they don't know any better."
Rodriguez said the school must create a climate where "all students feel welcomed and this is part of their home. This is nobody's fault, and it's all our fault."
Project Challenge, which has existed for more than 10 years, provides support for students to take honors courses and achieve at a higher level. These students are selected on the basis of race, income and family background, and of the 28 current students who have participated, six are white, Jackson said.
The results have been mixed, he said. Some years there is evidence that Project Challenge has helped and others there isn't, but the cost is only about $6,000 to $7,000 a year, he said.
Committee member Steve Rivkin said that with the budget under pressure, "We need to have a lens on everything."
Member Irv Rhodes agreed, saying, "We need to know the reason for existing so our decision on cuts is informed."
Rivkin also suggested that the school district make sure that the racial criteria for the program are in accordance with the law.
Sanderson brought up the issue at a parent's request. Anderson termed the inquiry "a hostile reaction for the privileged class."
"People in the dominant culture expect to have the best for their kids, but when it's extended to those without privileges, they get upset," she said.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.