Darien High lesson on political ideology divides parents

Photo of Katrina Koerting

DARIEN — Parents are divided over various lesson plans and resources that critics say inappropriately introduces politics into the classroom and supporters say teach critical thinking.

The debate mainly focuses on a graphic of different political ideologies and an exercise that sorted students into political groupings using a Pew Research survey, as part of a high school social studies class, though some references to middle school were also made. Some parents said students were bullied for identifying as conservative.

“These materials are really inappropriate and really offensive,” said Liz Riva, one of the parents who spoke during Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Riva said she was “appalled” that teachers chose to use them and that there was no oversight of the materials.

This isn’t the first time the exercise and course have been presented to the high school students. Some parents spoke about their children participating in the exercise in the past couple of years with no issues and one person read a letter from a recent graduate about how the course helped prepare him for college.

“We were taught to be freethinkers and prepare our own decisions,” said Sophia Talwalker, a 2020 graduate, adding the class let them examine current events, as well as political speeches and cartoons from all perspectives.

Several parents said students are seeing current events on their phones and other devices and felt it was a good thing for them to discuss these issues in the classroom.

“Like it or not, we have to adapt and prepare them for the real world,” said Carolina McGoey, one of the parents who spoke at the meeting.

Foud Onbargi said the exercise wasn’t meant to polarize the class, and was instead intended to help the students learn to navigate an already polarized country and understand the perspectives of others.

“It’s to understand the other side,” he said.

Another parent also said two of her children took the same course at a private school in New York where they also completed the Pew survey.

Some parents questioned why the materials were causing so much controversy now and suggested social media posts may have taken it out of context.

About 70 parents went to the Board of Education offices last Friday to support Kate Bates, a parent who met with school officials and shared concerns about the survey and graph used in her daughter’s class.

“I firmly believe no one in this district has ill intentions,” she said, adding her daughter was upset and confused by the exercise and it had no place in school.

One parent said the claims of students booing each other for their political association is the crux of the issue.

Not all of the speakers directly addressed the class or material.

Some focused on a general need for transparency between school officials and parents, and for the curriculum to take into account the age of the students. They said schools need to remain unbiased and teachers’ political beliefs should not come into the classroom.

“This is not education, this is indoctrination,” said Joe Martin, one of the parents who spoke.

They also said there needs to be more oversight on the curriculum and materials used in the classroom.

Some parents and administrators said they trust the teachers and those professionals and the curriculum are some of the reasons Darien is a high-ranking district.

Officials said there are regular curriculum updates on the website and at the board meetings, like the one previously scheduled for Tuesday’s meeting.

Some school board members also suggested creating a curriculum committee that would work closer with the administration instead of the board acting as the committee.

Most parents said they would like to work with the schools and asked for the district to send resources home so parents can be prepared to talk with their children about what they’re learning in school, especially if their children have questions about it.

Other parents said the district had no place discussing things that interfered with families’ home lives.

The parent concerns sparked a recent response from Superintendent of Schools Alan Addley prior to the meeting, defending the use of the materials and calling for the community to support the teachers. He said the resources are part of a unit that helps develop “students’ critical thinking skills in identifying credible sources and understanding of biases.”

He said the point of the exercise is to have these proactive conversations about the materials, which better helps prepare students for college and adulthood.

On Tuesday, he told parents he welcomed the healthy dialogue about curriculum.

“It’s important to get this right,” he said.