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  • Writer's pictureAlex Nelson

Black History Month controversy at Utah school highlights lack of diversity, racial insensitivity

A public charter Montessori school in a small Utah town has grabbed national attention over its initial decision to allow parents and students to opt-out of Black History Month teachings. Although the exemption option was eventually rescinded, the controversy highlights the racial divides that exist within the American education system and the anti-Black sentiments held by many across the United States.

For context, consider the following: North Ogden, home of the Maria Montessori Academy, has a population of 19,392. Of the city's residents, 94.2% are white, according to the US Census Bureau. At the Maria Montessori Academy, there are 322 students, only 3 of them are Black. The school has deleted its website's faculty and staff pages but an in-depth internet search turned up 68 photographs of the school's staff and faculty members. It is unclear whether any or all of the individuals identified in the search are currently employed at Maria Montessori Academy, however, each photograph represents an official employee headshot from the school. There appears to be very little diversity among the group.

The row over Black History Month at the academy began when a group of parents—the school won't say how many—asked academy officials to allow their children to be exempt from learning Black history lessons during February. As is the case in many American schools, Maria Montessori only teaches Black history during the second month of the year. Last Friday, after news began to circulate locally about the anti-Black history sentiment at the school, the Academy's director, Micah Hirokawa posted on the school's Facebook page explaining the situation. Hirokawa attempted to publicly describe his response after “a few families” attempted to pressure the school into changing its instructional plans for February.

“Reluctantly, I sent out a letter to our school community explaining that families are allowed to exercise their civil rights to not participate in Black History Month at the school,” said Hirokawa in the post.

As public criticism began to mount, the school changed course and issued a statement via the academy's official website.

The Maria Montessori Academy was founded upon the instructional principles of Maria Montessori, an early 1900s Italian physician. According to the American Montessori Society, Montessori educators take an approach to instruction that "view[s] children as naturally eager and capable of initiating and pursuing learning, guided by their own interests." Now, the issue of student guidance at the school in Ogden has become a hot national topic.

Over the last week, social media has been abuzz with critical discussions about the academy. Among the loudest voices decrying the would-be injustice at Maria Montessori is the Ogden NAACP chapter. Betty Sawyer, Ogden NAACP president, released a statement last week championing the importance of Black history and underscoring the challenges of educating American youth in today's racially charged climate.

“Given the current tumultuous state of race relations in our country, it is now more vital than ever that children are given ample opportunities to learn the authentic history of our nation, not sanitized, ‘feel good’ versions," said Sawyer.

"Authentically teaching Black History as American History allows our youth to develop the social and emotional skills necessary to be inclusive of others and cultivates a society in which all individuals have equal rights without discrimination based on race. While this decision was recently reversed, we find its very consideration troubling. We welcome the Maria Montessori Academy to engage in dialogue with the Ogden NAACP and revisit its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion," the statement concludes.

Utah Jazz basketball All-Star Donavan "Spyda" Mitchell took to Twitter to share his take on the academy's Black History Month snafu, calling out the racism of the parents who requested the exemption. "The fact that kids are being told by their own parents to not learn about black history and black excellence is sickening and sad," tweeted Mitchell.

Mitchell's teammate, fellow NBA All-Star Rudy Gobert, joined in the Twitter conversation as well, tweeting, “Meanwhile kids can’t be opted out of the many lies that they are being “taught” the rest of the year! #history #his-story.”

The Utah Jazz organization has even responded to the controversy, taking the step of teaching Black History through a series of videos, discussions, and writing prompts for K-12 students. “The team will explore people or events in Black history that have inspired them. These “Black History Heroes” discussions available on demand for use as part of school curriculums,” said the statement.

Under Utah law, public school students can be granted a waiver from instruction if the teachings infringe on their religious beliefs or “right of conscience.” However, students are not eligible for exemption from core social sciences curricula that “include a focus on U.S. history, inequality and race relations,” a spokesperson from the Utah State Board of Education. Ultimately, it is unclear whether there is legal precedent to justify the Montessori parents' attempt to scuttle the academy's Black History Month lessons.

What is crystal clear is the growing divide over how students are educated, especially with regard to the teaching of American history. Although the decision was reversed, parents, teachers, and students across the nation must continue to fight and advocate for equity in education as well as for curricula that accurately honor the work and sacrifice and stories of all American people.

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