Note: The following is a guest post, written by my friend Diana Martinez Alexander. I occasionally run guest posts, some of which I solicit and some of which are sent to me.
Southlake. Garland. Frisco. Now Spring Branch is pushing to join the ranks of school districts in Texas who are making the news for all the wrong reasons.
“Parents’ Rights” is the newest buzzword used by conservative politicos, and that has translated into small contingents of vocal individuals with seemingly coordinated talking points on CRT, gender identity, Socio-Emotional Learning, and attacks on books and distrust of librarians and educators. The ACLU has even gotten involved in a case where a high school track team member faced consequences for running in a *gasp* sports bra.
The latest situation centers around an elementary grade field trip to the Main Street theater as a culminating activity for some students reading the book of the same name, James and the Giant Peach. Apparently, a common tactic of allowing cast members to double up on roles or play a character of another gender is a bridge too far for some community members. So after this concern was shared with district officials, the remaining schools from SBISD had their trip to the Main Street Theater canceled.
Never mind that some students read this book with the promise of seeing the play. Never mind that this theater is renowned for providing quality productions for nearly fifty years. Never mind that this may have been one of the few opportunities for these elementary school students to experience theater. Never mind all of the effort and work from staff to make the arrangements for this field trip. Never mind that parents had an opportunity to sign a permission slip for their children to attend.
Instead, a handful of chest-thumping parents have made international news as the district kowtows to their demands. However, this misplaced deference comes at great cost to SBISD. Strictly in terms of our reputation, the public widely admonishes the decision to cancel the field trip and frankly, wonders what the heck is going on in our community. Second, this results in a chilling effect on teachers and staff making any decision which could be perceived as controversial, to the detriment of students’ learning experiences. This could very well lead to a loss of experienced staff afraid of retribution, particularly those who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. (We are already there, as just this week I heard of at least two instances of staff on leave relating to this increased hostility.) Lastly, this could have a very direct impact on the district’s theater productions, many of which have been nominated for Tommy Tune Awards. It’s a widely used practice to have students play characters of another gender, much like Shakespeare or Grecian theater.
Over and over, I’ve been hearing the same refrain: Parents should have the ability to make decisions on the books, extracurricular activities, and field trip participation for their child. But not all the children in a school community.
In response to an email on 4/27/23 I sent regarding this decision, Superintendent Blaine wrote:
“Based on the concerns we heard, the decision was made to request campuses planning to attend make [sic] alternative arrangements. My responsibility is to ensure that content students are exposed to during school hours is age appropriate. Given the information we had, the decision was made to err on the side of caution. Please understand these decisions are not always easy to make and are always done in the best interest of our students.”
You can also view a response sent by one of the SBISD principals to parents below.
I don’t see any winners here, only losers. The students definitely lose out on an opportunity to engage with their learning, build love of the arts, and experience theater in person. Again, this disproportionately impacts historically marginalized students who may not be otherwise exposed to the arts. A larger population of Title 1 schools are on the north side of the district. (Title 1 schools receive funding based on the percentage of students who qualify for free/reduced lunch.)
And in SBISD, divided by Interstate 10, it’s been a struggle to have voices heard by the board without equitable representation on the board. People are working to even the playing field, with a lawsuit filed in 2021 to change from at-large representation on the school board to single member or a hybrid model.
Speaking personally, I am ready to have someone with an authentic perspective on the struggles of our Title 1 schools and campus communities on the north side representing us on the board, like candidates David Lopez for Position 1 and Becky Downs for Position 2. As a graduate myself, former employee, parent of a graduate, and current SBISD community member, I see the devotion and loyalty held by many for our little corner of Harris County. I also see the determination of those fighting against the erasure of those deemed problematic by right-wing extremists. Good, I am glad.
We’ll see on election day, May 6th, if #PeachGate makes a difference in the results. Otherwise, students may learn the lesson that their families will only matter in decisions if they espouse the basest viewpoints amplified by conservative think tanks that aim to dismantle public education as we know it. In Spring Branch, we are not willing to let that happen.
More on the demographics of SBISD:
Diana Martinez Alexander is currently an educator in a large urban school district in Houston, serving special education students, linguistically diverse populations, and lower socio-economic communities. She is a proud daughter of immigrants, wife, mother, educator, and advocate who is devoted to working for community.
Note from Charles: The Chron story about this saga is here.