Aspen High School

 

Aspen High School in July.

 

Nearest Aspen School District Superintendent David Baugh can tell, much of it started when Joyce Rankin, in a column published about his district in the Steamboat Springs Pilot & Today, accused his district of breaking Colorado law.

“Recently, Aspen High School parents brought a serious problem to my attention,” Rankin, the wife of Republican Colorado Sen. Bob Rankin, wrote. “The principal and several teachers formed an ‘Equity Team.’ They explained it was to help them address the ‘complex issue of equity.’”

The equity team — on which “no parents or community stakeholders were included,” Rankin laments, “developed a survey that included questions of a private, personal nature and made it a required assignment. Class time was allowed for the survey to be completed and submitted. Students were instructed to submit their work anonymously.”

Rankin goes on to contend that because the school ran a survey even in an anonymous capacity without first getting parent or guardian permission, the school broke Colorado law.

But the outcry then extended beyond Rankin’s initial concerns — namely, legal and privacy concerns surrounding how personal information may be used — to allegations that the school district was teaching critical race theory, which seeks to examine how race underlies other social infrastructure such as the legal system.

Baugh said he had about 15, maybe 20 parents “reach out, worried about critical race theory.” He found himself even Googling the topic, as it wasn’t entirely clear how a few questions about feeling safe in the school environment regardless of sexual orientation or religious affiliation on an anonymous survey led to critical race theory.

“I’ve been scratching my head, going, how are we talking about critical race theory?” he said. “I don’t have much to say about it except it’s not a useful construct for us in the classroom. It’s just not a useful way for us to engage with our students and teachers.”

As it turns out, he — and the Aspen School District, for that matter — wasn’t alone. Across the nation, school district leaders (and mostly conservative state legislators) are contending with concerned and sometimes angry parents and stakeholders criticizing curricula for including the academic school of thought, even when those districts insist they aren’t teaching it.

In Carmel, Indiana, for instance, a group of parents stirred up debate in the community after presenting their reasons to the school board why a recently hired Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer should be removed — not the person who was hired to fill the role in January this year, but to eliminate the entire position, according to reporting by WRTV Indianapolis. This week, legislators in both Idaho and Tennessee banned the teaching of critical race theory; Texas, seemingly, is not far behind.

But Baugh said Aspen doesn’t teach critical race theory — nor any of the recent academic movements that could be considered adjacent to it, including the New York Times’ 1619 Project and the Woodson Center’s 1776 Unites.

“We’re not going to do either,” Baugh said. “I’m neither right nor left, I’m just a school teacher, and that’s really it.”

He and Aspen High School Principal Sarah Strassburger explained as much in a communitywide email they co-signed May 4.

“We have received numerous concerns lately regarding the direction that ASD, and AHS, in particular, are going. We want to respond publicly and transparently to those concerns,” the email starts. “First, to those that think we are teaching Critical Race Theory, we want to say not true! Neither of us support or endorse that position, and it is not part of ASD’s curriculum. To be clear, trying to meet the needs of each and every student where they are is not Critical Race Theory, it is sound public education. In addition, ensuring that all students are seen, heard, and celebrated is not Critical Race Theory.”

What the school district does doggedly include is the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum, which places an emphasis on critical thinking.

“It is a global approach that has been recognized internationally for its rigor and for opening doors for students worldwide to educate themselves as critical thinkers and global citizens — goals that we wholeheartedly support and strive to achieve,” the email continues. “We do not embrace or support either of two controversial curricula; 1776 Unites nor 1619. While both have some talking points, we believe the ability to think critically and make your own informed decisions about beliefs is the hallmark of a strong educational system.”

Baugh said Friday that so far, the responses he’s heard from that email have been positive.

“We were just trying to say hey look, we’re not engaging in these behaviors. We’re just trying to teach a curriculum that’s been proven globally,” he said.

Megan Tackett is the editor for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.