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CNA Staff, Oct 18, 2023 / 11:54 am (CNA).
Muslim parents at a public charter school in Minnesota are objecting to books that teach about same-sex attraction and gender identity in elementary grades, with dozens of children reportedly being pulled at least temporarily from classes over the controversy.
School officials at DaVinci Academy in Ham Lake said during a recent school board meeting they implemented a curriculum that includes 120 “anti-bias” books for kindergarten through fifth grade, including 24 that present positive images of homosexuality and gender identity, because teachers noticed that students were being unkind to one another after returning to school after the coronavirus shutdowns.
But Muslim parents are calling for the school to ditch the books.
“We teach our children to basically respect others. But however, when the topic of LGBT comes up, we strongly believe that we need to be the ones who approach it and teach it to our children based on our beliefs,” said Aboubakr Mekrami, a Muslim father, during a school board meeting Sept. 25.
“This is a fundamental belief for us and one in which we have no wiggle room,” Mekrami continued. “We strongly object to this optional LGBT curriculum based and being used in the classroom. This is not about book banning nor excluding anybody.”
Children look up to their teachers and assume they are correct, he said.
“So, when the teacher reads a book that says, you know, that a boy can be a girl if they feel like it, and that their feelings are the most important factor in developing their identity, then my child comes home and now I have to explain to him that that is not our way,” Mekrami said.
Amna Soussi, a Muslim mother, said about 150 of the school’s approximately 750 students — or about one-fifth — are Muslims and that Muslims are responsible for a sizable enrollment increase the school has seen recently.
But the new curriculum has already driven some parents away and will likely drive others away as well, Soussi said.
“The curriculum introduces many sensitive and controversial topics, such as same-gender marriage, ‘boy wants to be a girl,’ ‘girl wants to be a boy,’ two moms, two dads,” she said. “Listen, we have no animosity nor hostility towards people that choose to practice a lifestyle different than ours. We have coexisted in this school for years.”
But she said the school is infringing on Muslim parents’ rights to raise their children the way they want to raise them.
“These subjects are opening up a box in our kids’ minds that we don’t want anyone to tamper with. These topics will create unnecessary stress, anxiety, and worries within our kids because it goes against our fundamental beliefs, our religion,” Soussi said.
“It is our right to introduce these sensitive, controversial, and religious-based topics to our kids when we feel is the appropriate time and age to do so. No curriculum, no teacher, no one else but the parent themselves will have the key to this box. The material in this curriculum will strip us from that right.”
Curriculum meant to foster ‘belonging,’ company says
Rebecca Slaby, executive director of AmazeWorks.org, which curates the books and provides lesson plans for them, told CNA on Tuesday that the curriculum also includes books about immigrants, race, ethnicity, language, religion, divorce, blended families, and children with incarcerated family members, among other situations.
“We exist so that all children — and adults, frankly — can experience belonging. And so, our curriculums are about representing all lived experiences as they already exist in our community,” Slaby said in a telephone interview.
“It is about representation so that kids can grow up feeling good about themselves, and also so that we can all treat each other with dignity and kindness, even if we have different beliefs.”
During the school board meeting last month, several teachers made presentations touting the curriculum.
Abby Marta, a second grade teacher, praised several books in the program, including a 2019 book called “When Aidan Became a Brother,” which is about a girl who tells her parents she is a boy; and a 2016 book called “One of a Kind Like Me,” which involves a boy who wants to dress up as a princess in the school parade.
“Every one of us experiences prejudiced thoughts or beliefs and it is our responsibility as professional educators to make sure that we proactively disrupt the transition from prejudiced thought to prejudiced behavior and discrimination,” Marta said. “And we are so fortunate here at DaVinci to have the AmazeWorks resources as research-based guidelines to do so.”
Hannah Dalske, who has taught gifted and talented students at the school for three years, said at the meeting the curriculum helps foster empathy and respect, and helps students have “that representation and safety of living their lives as the truest versions of themselves.”
At one point, she held up a ribbon that she said represented a boy she was friends with in high school who identified as “openly queer” and who died of suicide because of bullying he endured in school.
“No one is born inherently knowing how to take action against systemic inequality. Our understanding and empathy are meant to become action, vocabulary, and age-appropriate ways to seek help and equity, and simple knowledge of the lives that other people live is integral to this,” Dalske said.
“In my classroom, we view the world through a very wide-angle lens. We read books to connect abstract learning into deciding what kind of person we want to be,” Dalske said. “… I do not care if my students leave my room believing as I do. I care that they leave my room knowing why they believe what they do.”
The teachers’ presentations drew a mixed reaction from the school board. Some expressed support — one board member announced that she was “queer” and said she hoped her parents weren’t watching because she hadn’t told them yet.
But other board members questioned why the school needs to use a curriculum that offends so many parents. One board member asked what problem the curriculum is solving.
Holly Fischer, the executive director of the school, said students who identify as homosexual or transgender “need to see themselves represented in the books and the conversations at DaVinci.”
“And to value one child’s safety over another child’s safety is not something that we can do,” Fischer said.
Sana Soussi, a school board member and Muslim mother of four children at the school, asked Fischer what it would be like for the school if about 150 students “leave, like tomorrow.” Soussi noted that it would be a big budget hit for the school, since public education dollars follow the students.
“I think that would be a shame,” Fischer said, adding that it would be “horrifically detrimental.”
Fischer did not respond to requests for comment from CNA. The Sahan Journal reported earlier this month that “as many as one in five students” were “kept home in protest” at one point in September, “assumed due to this issue,” Fischer told the outlet.
Under Minnesota state law, parents have the right to opt out their children from content they find objectionable and “to make reasonable arrangements with school personnel for alternative instruction.”
Fischer said during the board meeting school officials were scrambling to come up with substantive alternative content for the large number of students whose parents object to the gender and sexual orientation portions of the curriculum.
The school board plans to discuss the curriculum again when it meets Monday, Oct. 23.