Darien adds curriculum committee following politics class controversy

Photo of Katrina Koerting
Darien seniors picked up their caps and gowns at Darien High School in June 2020.

Darien seniors picked up their caps and gowns at Darien High School in June 2020.

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DARIEN — The school board unanimously approved creating a curriculum subcommittee following recent controversy over a class at the high school and amid calls from parents for more oversight and transparency.

“Curriculum work is not secret,” said Christopher Tranberg, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “I want nothing but for the curriculum to be transparent. If that’s what we feel we need to do as a community, I’m glad to do that and support it.”

The details of the committee, including what it looks like, its objectives and the timing are still being worked out. Some school officials recommended it start in the new calendar year to allow for the changes in the board with the November election and to give the district more time to prepare for it.

Curriculum will still be decided by the board as a whole. The subcommittee will allow members to dive into it more, though members likely still won’t review every item that will be presented to students — something parents had called for.

Darien used to have a curriculum subcommittee, but it was stopped years ago under a previous superintendent who found it redundant since the same discussions were happening at both the committee level and among the board as a whole.

While there have been requests to reinstate it over the years, the idea gained a lot of community and board support now after parents debated the usage of a graphic of different political ideologies and an exercise that sorted students into political groups using a Pew Research survey, as part of a high school social studies class. Critics have said the items inappropriately introduce politics into the classroom, but supporters said it teaches critical thinking.

“I think we all agree our children should be taught how to think, not what to think,” Kate Bates, a parent, said prior to the vote at the school board meeting.

She said about 200 parents have signed a letter calling for more oversight.

“We, parents, believe there should be greater transparency and accountability for what our children are being shown and taught in school,” she said.

The board considered a few options, including having members join the existing curriculum leadership team, creating the board subcommittee or a mix of both.

The curriculum leadership team acts like a district curriculum committee and reports to Tranberg, as well as the district professional development committee and a curriculum committee at the high school, Tranberg said.

“We have a curriculum leadership team that is made up of department chairs that were hired to provide that direct oversight of curriculum,” Tranberg said.

Both he and Superintendent Alan Addley had recommended the board put some members on that committee rather than create a subcommittee because it would provide the most insight into how and why the curriculum is being designed that way. They also said having a subcommittee in addition to that would become redundant.

“You truly would be going through that vetting process on a triple and so I don’t see the added benefit of that,” Tranberg said.

Several board members said the district and board committees served different functions and having a subcommittee for the board instead of joining the one at the district level would provide more transparency given that all can watch the meetings.

The department heads and school officials would present the new work to the committee, much like how the finance and policy committees work, and the board could really examine it.

“I do really like the idea of there being a small group who are very strongly tasked with focusing on our curriculum,” said board member Jill McCammon.

Other members agreed, saying the board is able to run much more efficient committee meetings now that wouldn’t replicate the same conversation at both that level and then as a whole board like what happened last time. Ideally, the committee would vet it and then present to the whole board.

Some members also suggested a set number of curriculum updates at board meetings throughout the year.

They also said they can reassess after a year to see if the subcommittee was still needed or if it was better to have the thorough presentations for the whole board.