The Center School, based at Seattle Center. Photo by Ian Ogburn

The Center School, based at Seattle Center. Photo by Ian Ogburn

After a crowded school-board meeting last Wednesday, March 6, Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Jose Banda quickly reinstated a Center School class on “Citizenship and Social Justice” — but not without some changes to the curriculum.

The reinstatement comes after the class was suspended in January, following a complaint by a Center School family that alleged it “created an intimidating and discriminating classroom environment.”

A Seattle Public Schools investigation also determined that the class created an intimidating educational environment. But students are saying that no such investigation occurred and that the decision was made without any input from students in the class.

“No one came to the class for the investigation. They claimed there was an investigation, but there wasn’t,” said Center School senior Kylin Sandstrom. “It seems unrealistic to take it this far. The superintendent didn’t have the right to stop the teaching of this class.”

In Banda’s e-mail to students, staff and community on Friday, March 8, he said he asked his team “to help come up with a solution that will allow us to keep these important conversations but will also make sure the curriculum is taught in a way that does not harm any student.”

The result has been the reinstatement of the course’s race-and-gender units with some changes to the curriculum, per recommendation by an ad hoc committee from the district’s Teaching and Learning Department. Among the changes is stopping the use of “Courageous Conversations,” a popular activity in the humanities course that engages students in dialogues about race, gender and identity.


Opening the dialogue

But thought-provoking conversation about social justice and inequality is exactly what students said they enjoyed about the course during last Wednesday’s public testimony at the Seattle School Board meeting.

A packed meeting room at the John Stanford Center erupted in applause and unanimous cheering after each supporter made their case for reinstatement of the course in front of the school board. Students, former students and educators voiced their strong opposition to the decision made by the school district to suspend the controversial class. 

They also rallied around its teacher, Jon Greenberg, and refuted the complaints made by the Center School family that Greenberg had created an intimidating environment. 

Center school student Xia Cloud spoke to the school board about her experiences in Greenberg’s class. “His class creates a unique and positive learning environment,” she said. “I learned from Greenberg’s class to speak up for the injustices in the world.”

Similar points were made by other students who testified, and they were met with agreement by a crowd composed of their family members and friends. 

Senior Terry Nguyen said in an interview after the meeting that Greenberg was more than happy to accommodate the class. 

“He taught us that we shouldn’t assume people are a certain way based on their appearance,” Nguyen said. His class was the first time “many of us encountered white privilege, institutional racism and seeing racial undertones.”

Sabrina Fields, a member of a race panel that visited the class at The Center School so students could have an open dialogue with people of color, said the suspension is a perfect example of structural racism.

“You have one voice that gets to disrupt the whole classroom,” Fields said. “You can’t have a holistic view of the class: Students need to be able to have their own points of view.”

Greenberg also took the to the podium during the testimony and responded to the claims made by The Center School family and the school district. 

“These are parents who claim it’s about the curriculum not the teacher; however, in this recorded meeting, they specifically asked me to not use racial language in a unit on race. It is a mind-boggling request,” Greenberg said. “These are parents who we must not cave into, or we are supporting the very systems of privilege that the system confronts and cross-examines.”

Greenberg, who’s been teaching the social justice class for more than a decade, said The Center School, which focuses on the arts and community engagement, isn’t showing enough courage for its students.

“The reality of The Center School is that students of color feel uncomfortable in a predominantly white school on a daily basis — who is filing a complaint for them?” Greenberg said.


Continuing the discussion

After the public testimony, each school-board member commented on the issue. Director Michael DeBell said everyone needs to be respectful of both the complainant and Greenberg, but that “academic freedom is a vital issue.”

”We run the risk of denying institutional racism — as a district we cannot allow it,” said director Sharon Peaslee.

As the modified curriculum plays out in the classroom, many students like senior Claire Star are attending meetings during lunch to support their teacher and to figure out a way to put this issue at the forefront of education in humanities.

“Race is not a comfortable thing to talk about, but it’s so essential to know about,” Star said. “Not being able to talk about it is crazy — it’s not fair to the students.”

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