CHESTERFIELD, N.H. — Close to 50 people turned out to a school board meeting in Chesterfield on the night of Nov. 8, many of them to speak out in support of the faculty and staff who have educated their children over the years.
“We are here to support our School Board and our school for what they are doing for our children and for our community,” said Susan Newcomer, who moved to town in 1980. “The school is providing the education that is needed to take the kids to the next level.”
Newcomer’s two children are Chesterfield graduates and are highly successful, said Newcomer.
“They got a great foundation at Chesterfield School,” she said. “The teachers were passionate, well educated, thoughtful ... all of the things you want out of an educator.”
About a half dozen speakers stood up to echo Newcomer’s sentiment in response to a recent board meeting during which one person accused the board of “disregarding” House Bill 544, Propagation of Divisive Concepts Prohibited.
According to the ACLU, the bill prevents children in schools, students in universities, state employees, and law enforcement personnel from learning about discrimination and systemic racism.
The ACLU says the bill is meant “to silence conversations on systemic racism, implicit bias, sexism, and more.”
Supporters of the new law characterize it as an “ant-discrimination” bill.
“So this is an important thing to make sure that when we have an instructional environment, that it is free from discrimination so that students can be free to be able to learn and grow as individuals,” N.H. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut told NHPR. “And without this, what we saw are instances where there wasn’t the opportunity for a free and open expression and conversation about certain issues.”
The Divisive Concepts Bill is one of many bills passed or being considered in state legislatures across the country in response to allegations that critical race theory, a college-level framework of looking at history that centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society, is being taught in grade schools and high schools.
Many Republicans view CRT as an effort to rewrite American history and convince white people that they are inherently racist and should feel guilty because of their advantages.
But the theory also has become somewhat of a catchall phrase to describe racial concepts some conservatives find objectionable, such as white privilege, systemic inequality and inherent bias.
“[C]ritical race theory is not taught in elementary schools or high schools,” said Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, during a speech in July. “It’s a method of examination taught in law school and college that helps analyze whether systemic racism exists — and, in particular, whether it has an effect on law and public policy. But culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism or discrimination as CRT to try to make it toxic. They are bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history.”
At the Oct. 11 meeting of the Chesterfield School Board, Kate Day expressed concerns about what is being taught to children regarding discrimination, social justice, equity, and diversity.
“She wants access to textbooks, lessons, lesson-plans, worksheets and training so parents are aware of what their children are being exposed to,” state the meeting minutes.
Day did not respond to a request for comment.
“I believe the school is doing an honest, highly integral job with our kids,” said Newcomer during Monday’s meeting.
Ayla Cordell, who has lived in Chesterfield since she was 5, said the faculty and staff at the local elementary school “nourished my academic and social and emotional skills.”
Cordell, who graduated from Colby-Sawyer College in New London in 2019 and is now working at the Boys and Girls Club in Brattleboro, said Chesterfield School prepared her for the challenges that awaited her on the way to her career.
“I owe them a lot,” she said, adding she trusts the teachers’ ability to teach critical thinking skills to the students.
She also noted that kids growing up in Chesterfield are not exposed to the same diversity of experiences they will see when they venture out into the world, so it’s important they hear other perspectives.
Mary Ewell, who taught physics at George Washington University in Fairfax, Virginia, moved to Chesterfield in 2017.
Ewell said that after a family tragedy, staff and teachers at Chesterfield School were remarkable in how they took care of a child in her care, who “really blossomed” during his time at the school.
“I could not have gotten through that time without all of you,” she said.
As a scientist, said Ewell, she appreciates how the school integrates outdoor learning into the curriculum.
Tim and Kay Butterworth raised an adopted, mixed-race child in Chesterfield. Tim Butterworth said his child’s experience at the school was “wonderful.”
“He made a lot of friends here,” he said, adding “With all the life and death decisions being made here by the teachers and administration, I can’t imagine many parents are waking up worried about critical race theory.”
Butterworth, who taught English for nearly 30 years, said all teachers are aware of what books are appropriate for what age groups.
But those books, he said, need to expose children to lots of different ideas that will benefit their thought processes and help them tell truth from fiction and help them to develop their moral compasses.
Allison Wyatt, who has three children attending the school, said teachers are doing “a tremendous job creating critical thinkers who think about complex issues from a variety of perspectives that is empowering and inclusive ... I trust them because I have seen what a great job they’ve done for my family for many, many years.”