Cape Henlopen school board candidates revealed their stances on equity, the role of educators in handling societal problems, and district strengths and priorities during a virtual school board forum hosted by the Sunshine Circle Club April 26.
Incumbent Janis Hanwell and challenger Ashley Murray each had three minutes to answer questions posed by moderator Dana Paskins, and then responded to viewer questions submitted through the Zoom chat feature.
Several questions involved House Bill 198, which would require district and charter schools to implement an age-appropriate Black history curriculum in grades K-12. Hanwell said the bill is a starting place, and that African American history should be infused and embedded within a multicultural curriculum.
There is a need for acceptance and understanding, she said, and the bill helps educators move beyond tolerance, a word she said she doesn’t like. Hanwell said she has three biracial grandchildren, and educators need to be aware of and understand other peoples’ experiences.
“I can empathize, but I've not experienced it, and I think people need to understand what that experience has been like,” she said, noting she has not experienced seeing someone crossing the street to avoid her, or feeling fearful during a traffic stop, because of her skin color.
Murray said she was unaware that some schools didn’t incorporate Black history within American history, and that she always received Black history education as a Cape student. She said a law should not force a mandatory Black history curriculum because it should already be taught.
“I have not gotten to read the entire bill, so I don't know what it is without reading the entire bill,” she said. “I'm not familiar enough with the ins and outs of that bill to be able to make an informed [opinion] as to what it actually looks like, and like I said, I'm more concerned about children that have not received this on their education.”
On her Facebook campaign page, Murray had previously called the 2.5-page bill an unbelievably destructive Marxist ideology that will manipulate and brainwash children, and urged people to contact their legislators or the bill will become law.
When asked to clarify her understanding of the bill that she said she didn't read, Murray said Marxist critical race theory disturbs her and divides people into three categories – victims, oppressors, or those who don’t want to be thought of as oppressors, so they side with the victim.
“I understand white supremacy was a horrible thing, without the teaching of the actual history, especially with it being started in kindergarten to where they don't understand it,” she said. “Who started the KKK, that it was a political tool that so horribly treated the slaves and also for the people that were standing up for the slaves.”
Critical race theory promotes a totalitarian government, she said.
“It’s taught to want a dictator and it’s taught for a subservient state, and so then when you are going to teach this K-8 you're going to wind up having a whole generation of kids that are going to come out that do not understand where we’re at, why we went through that,” she said.
Murray said her main priority is improving proficiency.
“I think that we should be looking at what new ideas can we be putting into place in assuring that we have much higher proficiency levels than what we currently have or what we had prior to COVID, which I know that they far exceed that now.”
Hanwell said her priorities are getting kids in school in person as soon as possible, closing the opportunity gap, and ensuring equity and inclusion in terms of curriculum, programs and staffing.
When asked how she would uphold the district mission regarding diversity, equity and inclusion, Hanwell said her platform – diversity, inclusion and equity – nearly mirrors the district’s. Cape’s test scores exceed state averages in many areas, she said, but she wants to improve scores.
Hanwell said she wants to continue the district’s transition to restorative practices and trauma-informed care so the disciplinary process is not strictly punitive and focused on African American males. Curriculum is being audited to ensure inclusive teaching methods, she said, and staff is being trained on cultural responsiveness. All students have access to Advanced Placement, honors and Academic Challenge programs, she said.
Asked how she would address the fact that students of color receive more discipline than white students, Murray said she would first need to evaluate if that was the case. She said she would want her son held to the same standards with the same disciplinary action as a person of color. More educator workshops might be needed to determine why teachers are more apt to discipline a person of color, she said.
Hanwell said the district prioritized addressing disparities in discipline four years ago in conjunction with the minority community liaison committee. The district needs to continue to look at the data, she said, and hold people accountable, whether the disparity is systemic or an individual staff member is not following policies.
Murray said she wants to ensure all children have the same, equal opportunities, and that any child in need will receive special attention and help to uplift all of them to be the best they can be.
Hanwell said the district has a responsibility to deal with societal problems such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, emotional illness or drug abuse.
“When a child comes to school, if they don’t have their basic needs met, it’s very difficult to get them an education,” Hanwell said. “So, if they haven’t been fed, they aren’t warm, they don’t have the proper clothing for the weather, we need to address those issues before we can gain any meaningful instruction for those students.”
The district offers free and reduced-cost lunch programs, and has staff members to address homelessness and provide resources for students, Hanwell said. School is the only stable environment for some children, she said, and the district placed additional counselors in school this year, with more planned for next year.
Murray said school is the first place many problems come to light, and that educators have the right and responsibility to report observable patterns. Counselors are very important, especially for students who may be experiencing abuse at home, she said.
Both candidates said technology is essential in education, but that in-person instruction remains the goal. Hanwell said the district can fine-tune programs and eliminate multiple online platforms.
Murray said the district was ahead of the game and quickly distributed iPads, but that her two children had totally different experiences. During remote days, her older son was able to log in as part of the class, she said, but few middle school teachers were online on Wednesdays.
“It is good to know that if a child can't be in school for any reason that they are going to be able to receive education,” she said. “I am proud teachers have gone far and beyond with the amount that they’ve had put on them, and I just think that in-person is where the children are most beneficial.”
Murray said she is glad the district is working to close the opportunity gap, and hire and retain instructors with diverse backgrounds. Cape is one of the best, if not the best public school in the state, she said, and she is proud that many students enter college or the workforce after graduation.
Hanwell said the district can be proud of support received from residents and partnerships with local hospitals, colleges and businesses that provide vocational training, certifications and internships.
“We have a community that believes strong schools make strong communities,” Hanwell said.
The current board instituted teacher recruitment guidelines, including targeting historically Black colleges and universities, Hanwell said. The retention rate needs to improve, she said, and she wants students to see there are successful people who look like them.
Regarding involvement in district activities, Hanwell said she and the board have resumed scheduled visits in schools, and she participates in annual Read Across America events. She said she attends as many school functions as possible, and helped increase wellness and mental health services for students and professional development opportunities for staff.
Murray said she has attended her children’s band concerts and track and field events, and that her son is active and successful in school and statewide DECA competitions.
The election for the five-year, at-large seat is set for Tuesday, May 11. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday, May 11, at Cape High, Mariner Middle and Rehoboth Elementary.
The forum can be viewed at https://bit.ly/3aLKcw8.