Milton School Committee members and administrators got an earful from parents July 8, especially from parents of color, demanding the town’s public schools achieve racial equity among students.
The comments were made during an extended Citizens Speak segment consuming nearly all of the three-hour committee meeting. About 25 people spoke.
The remarks, at times raw and heartfelt, centered on three issues.
First was the need to discuss racism in classrooms, a fallout from the temporary suspension of sixth-grade English teacher Zakia Jarrett, whose class was improperly recorded by a parent and shared electronically. Second was the segregation of the public schools, especially in the younger grades. Third was the lack of racial diversity on the committee itself.
Several speakers mentioned the 2020 WGBH Muzzle Award bestowed upon the school district July 1 by Northeastern journalism professor and “Beat the Press” panelist Dan Kennedy for the handling of Jarrett’s suspension over the discussion of race.
The award noted: “At a moment of national crisis over racism and police brutality, it is depressingly apt that our lead New England Muzzle Award this year concerns an African American teacher in Milton, Massachusetts, who was briefly placed on leave and investigated for telling her sixth-grade poetry students that some police officers are racist.
“School officials in Milton quickly backtracked, and the teacher, Zakia Jarrett, received a considerable amount of public support. Nevertheless, it’s sad and telling that the school administration’s first impulse was to punish the messenger rather than focus on the uncomfortable truth of her message.”
The night’s first speaker was Parkwood Drive resident Philip Johenning.
“It’s really wrong for our teachers to feel inhibited about discussing race,” he said. “I feel it was definitely wrong for the Milton School Committee to put any impediment on discussing race. I believe the committee needs to do an investigation of the situation.”
Verndale Road parent Jennie Mulqueen said what she wants most for her children and other children is “to feel safe, included, and valued in our learning community.”
She added, “Teachers and administrators and parents and families must be called on to do our work on systemic racism.”
The speakers’ remarks next turned to the everyday lived experience by some community members who are Black or brown. A sense of angst by speakers permeated much of what was said.
A drive to change the makeup of the school board in future town elections was mentioned by several participants, as well as disappointment in the town’s public schools.
“When one hurts, we all hurt,” Regine Jean-Charles said. “Why is the pain only felt by some in this town?”
Meredith and Matthew Thayer of Gulliver Street are the parents of a rising middle school student and a child entering the Tucker Elementary School. “I’ve never been more disappointed to be a part of something than I am with the school system right now,” Matthew Thayer said. “Zakia getting silenced — It’s very, very disappointing. I want to be proud of where my kids go to school.”
He continued by saying to school administrators and board members, “You’ve created a culture that’s exclusive...that’s a tale of two halves...I think there’s an opportunity to learn from this. We’ve got to change the way we behave. We’ve got to change the leadership. I have to admit I’m dubious. I don’t trust the leadership to do what’s right.”
The Tucker Elementary School featured prominently in the night’s discussion.
Located on 187 Blue Hills Parkway, the Tucker is noted for its students’ racial diversity. However, when Tucker students enter the sixth grade at Pierce, the lack of racial diversity at Milton’s three other elementary schools — Glover, Cunningham and Collicot — is apparent as all middle school students are now in one school, as some speakers described.
Exposure by white students to students of color is a problem at Pierce Middle School, some residents mentioned.
Disciplinary actions are meted out more against children of color than white students, parents complained.
When students of color are harassed by their white peers at an elementary or the middle school, as described by several parents, the youngsters’ concerns have been met with a dismissive attitude by some school principals. The name of Pierce Middle School Principal William Fish, at the school for about a year, was mentioned in this regard.
At an elementary school, one parent said her daughter of color was picked on by white boys for her hair. The girl did not receive support from the school, her mother said.
Also coming under fire was the Glover Elementary School, where a mother said her daughter felt targeted by a teacher. The mother’s complaints to the principal were not met with action. The girl was not offered counseling. The mother said she didn’t know where to turn.
Several of the speakers are, or have been, educators in the Boston Public Schools, such as Stacey Solomon of Lafayette Street.
“An overhaul” is needed, she said. “It’s not just about allowing our children to talk about race but a restructuring of how the Milton Public Schools work,”
Solomon raised concerns of anti-Semitism, tracking or funneling a student into a pre-thought education plan, and MPS’s pedagogy and the method and practice of teaching.
“Where are these students represented in the curriculum?” she asked.
“Diversity of thought, diversity of experience,” said Erin Hardy of Robbins Street. “That’s the gift we want for our children.”
The popular and over-subscribed French Immersion Program, which by a lottery system allows its selected students to be taught in French starting in elementary school, also came under fire, with some speakers wondering if enough students of color are being chosen for this all-subjects-in-French curriculum.
Some parents won’t wait for change, such as parent Dimitry J. Petion of Mulberry Road.
He spoke about the bias his sons have endured in Milton. One of his sons is now in college. The younger son will go to a school outside Milton, referencing Pierce Middle School.
“Because we don’t want him to experience what we have seen so far,” Petion said.
A reference to the “Tucker Table” emerged. As discussed by some of the night’s speakers, the table may be segregated.
“Get rid of that table,” parent Tamika Gagne said. “Let’s lead by example.”
The night’s remarks were also cast toward school committee members, whom some speakers castigated for not looking interested enough in what was being said during the July 8 meeting.
Superintendent of Schools Mary Gormley read a lengthy statement in response to the speakers’ comments.
“As your superintendent, I accept full responsibility for the mistakes that were made,” she said. “What occurred was wrong. Tonight we heard powerful testimony. I personally want to thank each of you for having the courage and the candor to share.”
Gormley said she will hold listening sessions this summer to do more work on antiracism.
Working with a group, the Milton Anti-Racist Coalition (MARC) will be part of her strategy, she said.
School Committee members responded to the speakers’ comments.
“We do hear you, we believe you,” Chair Sheila Egan Varela said. “I’m sorry if our expressions did not look like one of concern.”
“I hope that you will not give up on the town and not give up on the school system,” member Betty White said.
Dr. Kevin Donahue said that his one word to summarize what he had heard speakers say was “grief.”
“Grief at your experiences, grief at the reaction which your experiences were met,” he said. “It took us too long to be here. I’m sorry for all of it.”
On a related note, in a July 10 Tweet, Gormley, via her Twitter handle, @SuptMPS, posted: “In response to an unauthorized video of a teacher’s lesson, I made a serious error in judgement, a misstep I deeply regret. We’re working hard to listen, learn, improve, heal, and move forward.
“I hope this excerpt of my statement to the School Committee makes one crucial point very clear: ‘From pre-school through high school, our educators must be equipped with the knowledge, skills, support, and academic freedom to facilitate classroom lessons and discussions about the complex issues of race and racism.’”