After parents packed the room for the July Board of Education meeting, Lowell Area Schools decided to move the August meeting to a larger venue. School board members took the stage at the Performing Arts Center in Lowell High School on Monday night, and dozens of people filled the audience.
The meeting ran for 1 hour and 40 minutes, of which 70 minutes was devoted to public comments. All board members except Tom Kaywood and Dan Stephens were present.
Larry Mikulski Honored with Marsha Wilcox Community Service Award
At the start of the meeting, board members Pat Nugent and Laurie Kuna awarded the Marsha Wilcox Community Service Award.
“It is given by the board annually to someone who supports public education,” Nugent explained. In considering recipients, the board looks not only at a person’s involvement in the school district but their community activities as well.
For 2021, Larry Mikulski was selected for the honor. As an active part of the Lowell community, Mikulski served as the district’s transportation director for 23 years and lent his time and talent to the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce, St. Mary Church and the Knights of Columbus and the senior volunteer police patrol among others. A Vietnam veteran, he entered the Navy after high school and served for four years.
“I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t willing to help anyone in any way he could,” Kuna said.
Mikulski passed away in April, and his wife and family were present to accept the award from Superintendent Nate Fowler.
Curriculum Update: 5th Grade Sex Education Being Revamped
During his update, Director of Curriculum Dan VanderMeulen discussed the summer learning programs offered by the district.
Nearly 400 students participated in Arrow Readers on the Move, and they took almost 2,000 Accelerated Reader quizzes on the books they completed. There was also an elementary summer lit program, which featured a math component this year. Meanwhile, about 100 kids took part in an inaugural middle school science camp. Plus, there was a middle school art camp and credit recovery classes offered for high school students.
“It was a big summer of learning, and now we get into the real deal in a few weeks,” VanderMeulen said.
He also outlined the need for the 5th grade sex education program to be updated. State law outlines the process, which calls for a committee of ten people who must hold at least two public hearings to gather input from parents and community members.
The makeup of the committee is also dictated by law and must include teachers, parents, a student, a church representative and a health care representative. Once all the restricted spots were filled, VanderMeulen said there were two at-large positions for parents remaining. Twenty people requested to fill those spots, and a blind draw was done to select the final committee members.
The committee expects to meet 3-4 times before making its recommendations in March. That will provide time to implement changes prior to May, when the 5th grade sex education program is traditionally offered. Parents have the option to opt their children out of the lessons.
Public Comments: Opinions on Masks Split
During the public comments portion of the meeting, 22 people addressed the Board of Education. Those speaking were concerned with a variety of issues, including masks, critical race theory (CRT) and the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) program.
The only exception was Perry Beachum, who spoke to provide information about 2021 Pink Arrow activities. He noted Pink Arrow Community Day will be this Thursday, August 12, at Impact Church. The game will be on Thursday, August 26, against Mona Shores. Pink Arrow Pride is asking spectators to wear masks to protect those in attendance who are on a cancer journey.
Other speakers were almost evenly split when it came to their view of masks. Of those explicitly stating an opinion on students wearing masks in the fall, eight were in favor while nine were opposed. Fewer people spoke on the issues of CRT and DEI, but opinions on those topics were similarly split.
While many spoke of the need to work in the best interests of students, there seemed to be little agreement on how to do that.
“Masks and vaccinations are proven science,” said Jack Misner, a Lowell resident who led off the public comments.
Others said they aren’t so sure. “I’ve seen more science that says masks don’t do what they are supposed to,” said Tami Griffeth, a district bus driver.
Some parents expressed frustration over the hybrid system that was used during the 2020-2021 school year. “We have learned that our children’s education is essential, but public schools are not,” said Jenny Jousma. She added that she would withdraw her children from the district if the policies and procedures from last year were again used this year. Several other speakers made similar comments. “It’s not the district’s job to manage [students’] health,” Jousma added.
That sentiment was shared by Angie Ingram who said during her comments: “The number one priority of schools is not safety but education.”
However, other parents were pleased with how the district handled the pandemic. “I felt like last year, Lowell did an impeccable job,” said one woman. Another parent, Candice Fleszer, shared similar thoughts and expressed concern that while kids typically don’t die from COVID-19, they could suffer long-term effects. If masks weren’t to be used, she wondered what other option there was to protect unvaccinated children.
At the end of the meeting, Fowler said that unless new government mandates are imposed, masks will not be required in school buildings this fall. The decision to wear a mask will be left to parents and teachers. However, CDC rules do require masks on school buses since they are considered public transportation.
Fowler added that he personally would be wearing a mask while in school buildings. He also said it was important for students to know that no one should be shamed because they are wearing a mask and no one should be shamed because they are not wearing a mask.
CRT, DEI and Other Concerns
On other topics, some people questioned the motives of the district’s DEI team and disputed whether CRT was being taught in classrooms.
Critical Race Theory has been discussed by legal scholars as far back as the 1970s and ‘80s, but it has only recently come to widespread recognition. Its tenets, according to the American Bar Association, are that race is a social construct and racism isn’t something limited to a few “bad apples” but rather embedded in societal systems.
Fowler and other district officials have repeatedly said CRT is not taught at Lowell, but not all parents believe that. “We will not be lied to or passively believe you when you say it is not currently taught in Lowell schools,” said Di Rathbun. She pointed to a teacher in-service training which she said was “led by a black woman who kept referring [to teachers] as ‘you white folks.’” The woman also apparently called teachers racists, according to Rathbun.
Another woman, who was from Plainfield Township, expressed concern that America could become a communist country, adding, “CRT and DEI are evil and not of God.”
“Just because we teach diversity, [that] doesn’t mean we are teaching CRT,” one man responded during his time at the microphone.
Only one black parent addressed the Board of Education. She hadn’t heard of CRT being taught at Lowell but said she didn’t want it in the curriculum. “I don’t want my kids to think they are oppressed because they are not,” she said.
As for DEI initiatives, Olivia Geiger read a statement from Parker Liu, a Lowell High School graduate with minority ancestry who has heard from other minority students that name-calling and discrimination has been an issue locally. Ray Wolfe, who is white and has a black grandson, concurred with that assessment. He said his grandson has been subject to slurs at times.
As the public comment period wore on, some audience members occasionally interrupted speakers to clap their approval or murmur their disapproval. The most obvious occasion occurred when one speaker said it wasn’t the job of the Board of Education to take direction from any one parent and someone in the audience shouted, “you’re wrong.” Later, at the start of his comments, parent Bill Bledsoe encouraged those in attendance to listen to one another.
The next regular meeting of the Board of Education for Lowell Area Schools will take place on Monday, September 13.