Burbank Unified Continues Work On Curriculum Update, Superintendent To Render Decision On Challenged Books

(Photo By Ross Benson)

As the Burbank Unified School District’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee continues its curriculum update work, local debate has been fueled by national media attention, much of it misleading and hyperbolic, leading to confusion in the community.

Recently, four parents filed a complaint about some of the books – To Kill A Mockingbird; The Cay; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Huck Finn and Of Mice and Men – that a few English teachers in the District have been teaching for years. Some students in the District have used the books as an excuse for racist and abusive behavior towards fellow students, particularly Black students.

National and local media have picked up on that complaint, framing BUSD’s review process as censorship and a book ban, because Superintendent Matt Hill asked teachers to not teach the books during the Fall semester while the review is ongoing.

English teachers are required to teach two books a year (one in the Fall, one in the Spring) from the core novels list which is approved by the Board of Education. That list, which has multiple options per grade level, hasn’t been updated in more than 30 years. Teachers may also allow students to select additional readings and/or have small group discussions.

Regardless of the outcome of the complaint review and ultimately the overall curriculum review, even if some or all of those particular books are removed from the approved core novels list, all of those books will continue to be available in BUSD libraries for student access. Removing books from an approved core novels list is not the same as banning or censoring books. The books in question could still be discussed in some way in the classroom but not as a mandated reading choice for all students in a class.

The complaint process is separate from the curriculum update review, which is looking at the texts and teaching approaches for all K-12 subjects. The overall curriculum update review is ongoing.

Hill and members of the Burbank Board of Education responded to the curriculum update and the books complaint at the most recent school board regular meeting on Thursday, November 19. All Board members have specifically expressed support for the need to update the District’s curriculum during recent meetings over the past several months.

While the DEI Committee has been looking at updating the curriculum for nearly two years, the Committee began making more headway on the project since March 2020. Hill explained to myBurbank that “the committee renewed its focus and expanded after the killing of George Floyd [in May].”

Several parents of students in the District called in to share their perspectives and voice their support, during Public Comments time, for the District’s work in updating the core novels and K-12 curriculum.

“I want to appreciate everyone for coming here. And it’s not just this meeting, it’s this whole process. It’s an emotional process, a passionate process. When we talk about race and racism, we do need to approach this work with open ears and open hearts,” commented Hill during the November 19 meeting. “It’s one thing to have a conversation to get one point across. It’s a much better conversation when we switch it to a dialogue. I want to encourage us all to keep having that dialogue. Step one is listening. To hear each other’s stories.”

“We heard powerful stories tonight. We’ve heard powerful stories where people may disagree. But it’s important to hear both sides. And then come to that common ground,” Hill continued. “And what I’m hearing through this whole process, there is a common ground. We haven’t reached consensus on where to go, but the common ground is we need to diversify our narrative and our curriculum. No one disputes that.”

“I haven’t heard one person say we don’t need to add more books and diversify our narrative. Everyone is talking about we need to have more professional development and training. We need to have more of these conversations,” he added. “We really need to engage in this conversation at a deeper level. We haven’t always heard each other right now. Each of our experiences is different. To learn about racism through a book, let’s take To Kill A Mockingbird, one of my favorite books of all time.”

“When I learned that book, it was in a predominantly white classroom. And at time, I didn’t think about those students in the classroom that were not white. I loved the book. I wanted to be Atticus. When I read it over the years, it was still one of my favorite books. The last time I read it, it was in my Doctoral program,” Hill went on to say. “I read it on my own and when I came back to class, I started talking about it with my classmates. I was the only white male in that class. I started talking about To Kill A Mockingbird and one of my classmates said, ‘that’s not how I interpreted that book. That’s not how I felt. Have you read Just Mercy, have you read about Bryan Stevenson, the true Atticus?'”

“And I hadn’t. I hadn’t been exposed to that. I barely knew who he was. And here I am in a Doctoral program on Social Justice. It changed my perspective completely,” he said. “And that’s the power of listening and hearing others and their experiences. And how we can find amazing, award-winning novels but also provide a foundation.”

“So the book conversation for me really gets down to, how do we select and utilize curriculum that respects and supports all students? Right now we’re talking about our Black students. But our curriculum doesn’t support our LGBTQ students. It doesn’t support our Latinx students. It’s very narrow. It’s a very white-centric core novel list. So how do we work together to build that curriculum?”

“I keep hearing people, ‘add books, add books.’ But we only mandate two books a year. So some books are going to get priority over others. You can read Huck Finn in an affinity group or a small group in class of just all white students and really talk about what that book meant to you. You don’t have to mandate that every single student, especially our Black students, have to sit in class and hear the n-word over 200 times,” Hill also said.

“There’s powerful ways to use books. We are not censoring books. We are not banning books,” Hill emphasized. “We’re talking about how to make a more robust curriculum that respects every single child in this district. And we have to find a path forward.”

“I’m looking for a way to respect all students, respect teachers and find a pathway forward. I think we can get there. We’re not all going to agree but we can get there,” he also said. “I appreciate everyone’s emails, everyone’s statements, everyone coming to the Board meetings. I am listening. I’m spending a lot of time listening to all sides. I do believe if we listen and then have dialogue we’ll [have] a much stronger conversation and [be] a much stronger district.”

“The process that we have is that the Superintendent will be weighing all of the information, all of the thoughts, all of the feelings that everyone brought to this process. You come to a decision weighing all of the information… and attempt to find a solution which will provide the greatest amount of benefit and the least amount of real harm,” commented Board member Dr. Roberta Reynolds. “We had a legendary meeting in which we selected Dr. Hill for the position he is in right now. But at the end of that process I absolutely believed that his commitment to listening, to understanding, to assimilating all of those perspectives was going to be what we needed.”

“And over this time, I have seen nothing other than that. In the fact that he will be coming forward with a decision, I am very confident that he will be bringing forward a decision that acknowledges and understands all those possible adverse consequences to whatever process is chosen but will also bring in the very best in selecting the best outcome with the least probability of damage to any student,” she added.

A report by the complaint review committee on the five books was sent to Hill on November 13 and his decision will be released in a statement on Friday, November 27.

More information on the DEI Committee and its four subgroups for Engagement, Instruction, Social Emotional Learning and Policy is available on their website.

The video and complete agenda of the Burbank Board of Education meeting for November 19 can be found online here.

The Burbank Board of Education is comprised of President Dr. Armond Aghakhanian, Vice President Steve Frintner, Clerk Charlene Tabet, and members Dr. Roberta Reynolds and Steve Ferguson. More information on the Board can be found online on their webpage.