Superintendent of Burbank Unified School District Matt Hill outlined the progress of the District’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee at a recent Board of Education meeting on Thursday, November 5. He also announced BUSD’s first Diversity Champion, second-grade teacher Ericca Dent, who was recently recognized as a California Teacher of the Year Finalist.
The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee includes four subcommittees for Engagement, Policy, Instruction and Social Emotional Learning. The DEI Committee includes parents, teachers, staff and students from the Burbank community “who have joined together to address ways to create an environment within BUSD where all students, especially students of color, can thrive and be successful,” according to the DEI website.
The DEI Committee efforts began nearly two years ago, Hill said, “after some parents came to the Board to express their concerns. The committee renewed its focus and expanded after the killing of George Floyd.”
The Engagement subcommittee is continuing its awareness campaign with the launch of the website. The Policy subcommittee is working on creating language for an administrative regulation for the existing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Board policy, Hill announced.
Members of the Instruction committee are attending sessions on reviewing library collections “with an equity lens.” School site Library Coordinators are working on developing a basic list of books that all school libraries should have and a list of additional recommended texts. The subcommittee is also reviewing Ethnic Studies course options.
The Instruction Committee includes BUSD students Sophia Moore and Adelina Hernandez, who petitioned the District during the summer as part of the Diversify Our Narrative national campaign. Diversify Our Narrative has challenged state education departments and local school districts throughout the United States to include anti-racist texts, books written by people of color and stories of positive Black experience in public school curriculum, which often includes books about people of color from only a traumatic or white savior perspective.
The Social Emotional Learning subcommittee has added survey questions to the mental health and well being survey that will be sent to students and parents. Community services are going to be identified and posted on the District’s website, Hill added, along with an SEL book list to be created and posted on the District website for students, staff and parents.
A smaller complaint review committee, which includes some members of the Instruction subcommittee, was created to review the following books: To Kill A Mockingbird; The Cay; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Huck Finn and Of Mice and Men, Hill said, noting that Of Mice and Men was recently added to the original group of four books in the complaint.
A few Burbank Unified students called in to speak to the Board during Public Comments time at the November 5 meeting. They advocated for keeping the books in question as part of the approved curriculum list.
Board of Education members thanked the students for their perspectives and emphasized they welcomed hearing all points of view on the curriculum review. Additionally, several members emphasized this curriculum review and complaint process is not a book ban.
In his response during the meeting, Hill thanked the students for sharing their point of view with staff and the Board. He explained that the review committee includes the parents who filed the complaint about the books, BUSD English teachers and Instructional staff to discuss the five challenged books. After he receives a report from the committee by November 13, Hill has two weeks to respond.
“They are wrestling with the same topics that were discussed [during Public Comments],” Hill stated. “I am listening and I will be reviewing everything.”
The committee is “reviewing the complaint for our curriculum and reviewing our core novels and our curriculum. Again, I want to echo what our Board said,” Hill also said. “This is not about banning books. This is not about taking away academic freedom.”
Although the National Coalition Against Censorship called Burbank’s curriculum review a book ban, that wording is an inaccurate description of the ongoing process. Some news organizations have picked up on the phrase, releasing a spate of inaccurate reports, including a misunderstanding of how teachers choose books to teach and the larger efforts of the Diversify Our Narrative campaign and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.
“Recent news articles in the Los Angeles Times and television interviews have spouted false information,” commented Instruction subcommittee member and BUSD Library Coordinator Lisa Dyson. “WE ARE NOT BANNING BOOKS!”
“These books are on pause while we listen and learn from our BIPOC students, parents, and teachers who have experienced these classroom books for over 30 years now and have come to our District sharing their experiences and their concerns,” Dyson continued.
“So these books are on pause while we listen and learn and read what is currently out there also written by award-winning BIPOC without the trope of the white savior stories or books that are considered ‘classics’ because white gatekeepers at one time decided what would be considered classic.”
“No one is disputing these books shouldn’t be read – they are readily available in our school libraries,” she also said. “This is a conversation schools and libraries are having all across our country right now… and it’s long past due. This is not censorship. It’s about equity representation of our student populations. It’s 2020, there are now so many options out there that can enhance our literature curriculum. The work is being done.”
“The saddest part is the misinformation being spread that I have to combat on a daily basis – and articles that misrepresent the work that is happening or television interviews that don’t share the whole story are not helping the rumor mill,” Dyson added. “I am extremely proud to be a part of this exciting work – it’s a positive step in the right direction.”
The process for curriculum review BUSD is following includes strict adherence to Board policy. Hill made the call to hold off on the teaching of the books in question during the Fall 2020 semester until the review process was completed, after hearing about the trauma that some Black students have experienced, directly related to the teaching of certain books in middle school English classes.
“It was my decision to ask the English teachers to not teach these four books this semester,” Hill said at the October 5 Board of Education meeting. “I feel that given the nature of the complaint and the concerns and the harm it has caused our students – especially our Black students… I felt we should not ask them to opt out of instruction but we should pause and go through the process and come up with a strong recommendation.”
“We want to respect the professionalism of our teachers. We want to respect our students and our families. But we have to acknowledge even the fiercest supporters of these books have highlighted the problematic nature of the books,” Hill also said at that meeting. “So we need to decide as a school district, are these the best books for our students? They will always be available. I keep stressing that because the censorship and banning conversation should not be part of this conversation.”
“Forty years ago is when the Board of Education adopted our core reading list,” Hill noted at the November 5 meeting. “This complaint process has allowed us to take a hard look at our core novels” and allow for a “holistic review.”
“The Board approves the core novel list for English classes and that is what is being reviewed,” Hill explained.
English teachers then choose which books to teach from the approved list, which includes multiple options per grade level, so none of the books on the list are required reading unless the English teacher assigns it for their class. Many Burbank Unified students have not read some or even all of the five books included in the complaint because their English teacher chose to assign a different book.
There are still spaces available for Burbank community members who wish to join the Engagement and Social Emotional Learning subcommittees, Hill also said at the November 5 meeting, encouraging those interested to contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.