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A new political action committee (PAC) in St. Peters promises to support candidates in April who align with its views on what members believe are hidden agendas involving critical race theory (CRT) and social justice in new courses offered in the Francis Howell School District. Dubbed “Francis Howell Families,” the PAC was registered with the Missouri Ethics Commission on Aug. 2. According to a press release, its members include district parents and grandparents, educators and other district taxpayers. Vivian Gontarz is treasurer. 

According to the press release, Francis Howell Families was created “in response to the Francis Howell School District Board [of Education] and superintendent developing and teaching the dangerous and racist critical race theory and social justice agenda in its high schools and middle schools…” It  goes on to say the group “rejects any attempt to divide people by race, gender, or other immutable characteristics or to teach that those characteristics determine their destiny.”

The contention started over two elective classes – Black History and Black Literature – that some say divide students by race. The Francis Howell Board of Education, in July, voted 6-0 in favor of adding the courses to its newly created Black history and Black literature curriculums.

Hesitant to mention names specifically, Katie Rash, a Francis Howell Families member and parent of two children in the district, criticized current board members who she said she believes are reluctant to stand up against a growing culture of CRT proponents in the district. Rash specifically pointed to the hiring of Dr. LaGarrett King to help teachers develop a Black history course at the district’s high schools for the 2021-2022 school year. 

King co-authored “Making Inquiry Critical:  Examining Power and Inequity in the Classroom” in 2018.  Rash defined the paper as a “blueprint for incorporating critical race theory and critical pedagogy into social studies courses.”

In a written response to the Rash’s allegations, Jennifer Jolls, the district’s communications director, noted: 

“While we respect citizens’ right to organize, we do not agree with many of the group’s allegations. We wish members of the PAC had committed to working with us as opposed to organizing against us. We remain open to a collaborative relationship. In fact, our stated missions aren’t that far off. 

“We also care about academic quality and fiscal responsibility, and would never divide students by the color of their skin or suggest that race determines all life outcomes. We teach our students to use critical thinking skills, check the source and look for multiple perspectives in their quest for truth.”

She said employing King was just another example of the district seeking “counsel and perspectives for many initiatives in an effort to make the best decisions for students.” 

“Dr. King has experience developing Black history courses. He was just one voice in the process, and was hired as a consultant long before CRT was a buzzword,” Jolls said. She added that the curriculum was written by district teachers, not King, and that those documents are available under “BoardDocs” on fhsdschools.org.

The district also hosted several public webinars for the community to learn about the courses, which Jolls stressed are electives and not required for any student. 

Rash said she and other members of Francis Howell Families worry that the courses will not stay that way for long. 

“What you allow in an elective course tends to creep into regular classes,” Rash said. “So it matters if curriculum that is developed is biased and contains problematic content.” She claimed that Francis Howell Families had conducted a very detailed analysis and review of the two courses based on curriculum and they weren’t happy with what they found.

Specifically, she pointed to the inclusion of a “Teaching Tolerance” document in a Black literature teacher resource document that instructs the educators on how to lead what it refers to as “Critical Conversations,” a term she said “is not used in the sense of critical thinking.” According to Francis Howell Families, the term “serves as a strong clue that some of the educators who developed the curriculum do in fact have the goal of turning our students into social justice warriors with elevated critical consciousness.”

Jolls countered that the district’s only agenda is to teach students to think critically about the world they live in. 

“These courses do not push an agenda,” Jolls said. “Rather, they provide space for conversations and student-directed learning. As educators, we absolutely must equip students to be lifelong critical thinkers who have the skills they need to advocate for issues they care about. It’s not our job to determine what those issues are, but it is our responsibility to make sure students are appropriately equipped. How do you help students develop critical thinking skills without creating space for critical conversations?”

Rash said Francis Howell Families is not against teaching Black history. 

“We want Black history to be taught, but it only takes reading the curriculum materials to see that there are tenants of CRT in the curriculum,” she said. “The high schools have already shown videos promoting social justice, and students at Barnwell Middle School home room hour, last year, had lessons that included themes like social justice orientation, racial privilege and oppression.” 

Barnwell also conducted a leading social justice-oriented survey with students in which they asked students what specific social justice topics they would like to learn more about. 

“They created a social justice committee that meets during school hours,” Rash said. “This does not align with neutral, unbiased education and is not the place of our schools.”

However, Jolls said social justice activities at Barnwell are evidence of an attempt to “ensure that all students feel welcome, connected and included while at school.” She said the Social Justice Committee – No Place for Hate – met once last year during Pack Time or homeroom hour (not instructional time) and does not as a rule meet during school.

According to Jolls, Pack Time activities at the start of every day include varied topics. 

“Last year, social justice topics were discussed six to eight days throughout the year. Rather than teacher-led information, students engaged in structured discussions framed around thought-provoking questions. Students had the opportunity to voice their answers and share their own personal stories … Families were invited to view the questions being discussed in advance,” Jolls said.

She added that families also had the opportunity to opt-out of the social justice lessons; however, “only two families did.”

“Though the school did hear concerns from a handful of community members who do not have children at Barnwell, the vast majority of parents have been supportive of the conversations,” Jolls said. She added that the survey at Barnwell was optional and asked students to choose topics they want to learn more about during Pack Time. “As educators, we often survey students to learn their interests; this provides student voice and helps students stay engaged in the learning process.”