Rethinking Cultural Competence at Great Hearts Monte Vista

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The Great Hearts Monte Vista community is in the process of rethinking cultural competence and racial sensitivity. The triggering event was a homework assignment about slavery in an 8th grade United States history class. The student’s father, justifiably outraged, shared a picture of the homework on social media, and it has since gone viral. There are links at the bottom of this post to some of the coverage; readers may already be familiar with the basic facts, but I’m going to summarize them to help clear up any confusion. Then, I will speak from my perspective as a charter school parent and school choice advocate about what needs to be done to improve the way schools teach difficult, painful, and racially charged topics.

Being Part of the Great Hearts Monte Vista Community

Readers may already know that my own children attend Great Hearts Monte Vista South. My son started in second grade when the school opened in 2014, and my daughter started in kindergarten a year later. I’m the president of the Parent Service Organization (PSO) at the Lower School (grades K–5), but the opinions I express here are my own, and do not represent the PSO.

I love how the school takes care of my children, particularly my son with special needs. It hurts to see the school stumble on any issue, but especially on one as important as how we teach slavery.

I’m white, and my children are white, so I don’t know first hand how it feels to be a person of color in the Great Hearts Monte Vista community. I don’t have personal experience with microaggressions on campus. I can’t speak at all to the pain caused by the homework assignment at issue here.

I look around at the children’s—and the parents’—faces. (I also looked up data from the Texas Education Agency and the United States Census Bureau.)

Great Hearts Monte Vista South student demographics 2016-17; source: Texas Education Agency School Report Card | San Antonio Charter Moms

In 2016-17, students at Great Hearts Monte Vista South were 1.8 percent African American, 44.6 percent Hispanic, 44.6 percent white, 5.1 percent Asian, 3.9 percent multiracial, and zero percent American Indian or Pacific Islander.

 

Great Hearts Monte Vista North student demographics 2016-17; source: Texas Education Agency School Report Card | San Antonio Charter Moms

 

The students at Great Hearts Monte Vista North were 2.1 percent African American, 48.5 percent Hispanic, 44 percent white, 2.7 percent Asian, 2.7 percent multiracial, and zero percent American Indian or Pacific Islander.

Texas student demographics 2016-17; source: Texas Education Agency School Report Card | San Antonio Charter Moms

In that academic year, students in Texas were 12.6 percent African American, 52.4 percent Hispanic, 28.1 percent white, 4.2 percent Asian, 2.2 percent multiracial, 0.4 percent American Indian, and 0.1 percent Pacific Islander. Census data uses slightly different categories, but a 2016 survey showed that 7.1 percent of children in the city of San Antonio were black or African American.

Across Texas, 59 percent of students were economically disadvantaged; the figures at Great Hearts Monte Vista were 12.9 percent at the South campus and 17.7 percent at the North campus. So, compared to the demographics of children in San Antonio and across Texas, Great Hearts Monte Vista was measured as whiter and more economically advantaged.

The Homework and the Great Hearts Response

Looking at the homework assignment, the title says, “The Life of Slaves: A Balanced View.” That’s clearly wrong. The teacher made a mistake.

The school administration quickly acknowledged the mistake. The next morning, the school sent an email to all parents and addressed the situation on Facebook, including this message:

Last evening Great Hearts was made aware that one of our teachers at the Monte Vista North campus assigned homework that was very inappropriate and entirely inconsistent with Great Hearts philosophy and culture. In the 8th grade American History class students were asked to reflect on the differing sides of slavery. To be clear, there is no debate about slavery. It is immoral and a crime against humanity.

The teacher is on leave. The school removed all the textbooks, although the publisher said that the homework was not part of the textbook but was the work of the teacher. Administrators and teachers have been meeting with small groups of students and parents to talk about what happened.

The school set a date of May 9 for a follow-up communication.

The Process of Rethinking Cultural Competence

The homework assignment was a painful mistake. How should Great Hearts Monte Vista be held accountable for it?

In the short term, Great Hearts is most likely preoccupied with their investigation, and may be quiet for a while as they chart a course. What are some things Great Hearts can do in the longer term to be more welcoming to people from all cultures? I am no expert, but here are some suggestions that make sense to me. I hope you will add your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

  • Study hiring and training practices.
  • Evaluate marketing and student recruitment programs.
  • Update curriculum design and instructional goals.
  • Improve procedures for hearing concerns and resolving grievances.

The things that make Great Hearts unique—the classical education curriculum, the seminar format, the study of ancient languages, etc.—should continue. But the school needs to do more to promote positive and effective interactions with diverse cultures, particularly when it comes to the painful history of slavery.

Keeping the Good in Great Hearts

Great Hearts should continue to offer classical education, but do it better, in a far more culturally competent and racially sensitive way. Teachers should continue to lead students in Socratic discussions about arduous periods in American history, but the school should develop a better system for choosing and creating instructional materials.

Great Hearts is explicit about what kind of education it offers: “The Great Books and ideas of the Western Tradition serve as a foundation to the Great Hearts program across all K–12 grades.” Messages from the school promote the benefits of a Great Books education:

“The Great Books are works that have stood the test of time as exemplary for their beauty, eloquence, impact on history, and profundity in addressing the essential questions of what does it mean to be a human being.” explained Dan Scoggin, Great Hearts co-founder. “What is justice? What is knowledge? What is proof? Add to that all the sorts of perennial moral questions we should ponder in our early years: what is my duty to myself, my family, my friends?”

Can Great Hearts provide a Great Books education that is honest about our country’s history and also racially sensitive? I believe so, but they will need to be humble and ask for help to reach their goals. This problem is not unique to Great Hearts Monte Vista; many other schools in the San Antonio area need to improve in this area as well.

I can love Great Hearts but hate racism. My children will continue to attend Great Hearts Monte Vista while the school community goes through the difficult process of healing and changing how it approaches slavery and other sensitive and painful topics. I will continue to advocate for charter schools and parental choice in education.

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sachartermoms

Parent-activist and education blogger in San Antonio, Texas, USA. Helping parents make informed school choices and explore cultural activities.

8 Comments

  1. I would hate for it to seem that the culture of the school at all resembles the poor wording and execution of this one assignment. One of the current ways that the students at Great Hearts Monte Vista North learn about this sensitive subject, in the 9th grade, is by reading “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” One poorly given assignment does not a broken school make.

  2. It is sad to think that an assignment from one teacher represents or reflects an entire school or schools. I have a ninth grader at GHNO and his experience in eigth grade was a very extensive study of U.S. History, including slavery and how it effected our country then and now. But more importantly the Socratic discussions and reading of other great works like “The Narrative Life or Frederick Douglas” gave my son the knowledge to recognize how we as a country can learn from slavery and the Civil War. I think that we can all agree that the wording of the assignment was a huge mistake. I also think that it should have been handled directly with the teacher and headmaster before going viral on social media. I hope we can learn from these mistakes and become better scholars, teachers and parents.

  3. I was impressed with how the school assessed this. Also very impressed with the parents, the discussion, and the continued attention to this. Great Hearts must be a great school.

  4. The problem with the assignment isn’t that it asks students to list the positive side of slavery. The problem is that the assignment asks students to list the benefits of being **enslaved**. That’s the difference. As much as we’d like to gloss over it, it’s clear that societies benefit from enslaving people, that’s why they enslave people. That’s not to say that slavery is good or that it should ever be practiced, but a history teacher shouldn’t be scared to explore with his or her students how people in a society might come to the decision to enslave other people. Framing the question in terms of enslaved people’s potential benefits is what made the assignment ridiculous.

  5. As the parent of a student in the 8th grade class at GHMVN, I appreciate the problem-solving nature of this article. The furor surrounding this has really hurt the students. This problem should have been handled by complaints to the headmaster or superintendent. If no investigation had resulted, then media/social media could have been contacted. I have faith that GHMVN is investigating the situation and will put in processes or procedures in place to assure something like this does not happen again. As the parent of a biracial child, who has a non-Christian religious belief, I have found that the best way for our family to handle problems is by assuming the best of the school official we are communicating with, and providing materials that educate the official on the situation.

  6. You do not have a child in the Upper School. You have no experience with this teacher and no firsthand information about the assignment. I doubt you have spoken to parents and students who were in class the day of the assignment. If you had, I hope you would not be peddling the lie that is being told. The worksheet was not the assignment. The chapter title is Live of Slaves and the worksheet was handed out during the coverage of that chapter. According to other parents who have kids n the class the assignment was for the kids to list the reasons that people, who were alive at the time slavery was a practice, gave to excuse slavery. To continue to push the lie about the assignment is not fair to the teacher or the upper school. The only person who benefits is the person who hastily issued an apology before gathering facts about the assignment. It looks like you are doing him a solid by writing this blog.
    Your statement about your article not representing your thoughts as Lower School PSO President should have been left out of the article. It should have been a footnote disclaimer that did not mention your position as PSO President.
    The mere mention of your position will lead some to believe you have firsthand knowledge as an insider. This puts you in a position to exercise undue influence in this matter. I believe this is a conflict of interest and you should consider removing yourself as Lower School PSO President.
    A simple footnote disclaimer to inform those reading the article you have no firsthand knowledge and the views you express are purely your own (no mention of your LS PSO position) is appropriate.

  7. “Critical Slavery Assignment
    Fallout”
    What of the Student and Teacher involved? I have seen the assignment and read all of the articles. I have read the comments after the stories and the comments left in GHMV’s fb page. Every parent who is proud of their school, explains the assignment as a practice in “critical thinking analysis.” Everyone on the opposite side, cries “Racism, pure and true.” But where is our critical thinking now? Why aren’t we capable
    of trying to understand each other, rather than condemn both sides?
    If the assignment was truly on critical thinking, why was that not conveyed to both the student “and” his parents? Why did GHMV decide to remove the teacher, especially if he is so respected and held in such high esteem by so many students and their parents? Why wasn’t the teacher allowed to defend himself or was he? The parents of the student in question never asked for the teacher’s removal. They only asked the school to please explain this assignment.
    Every parent who agrees with the teacher, seems to be blaming the parent and even worse, the student. This misunderstanding has led parents and their children to attack and malign the very people who you claim merely “misunderstood the assignment.” This seems to be the general perspective. The school released their statement but we have yet to hear from the teacher. What must he be thinking as he sits at home being labeled a racist? Will he take responsibility for himself or blame the school or will he blame his student?
    To those who cry racism, the administration does seem to be trying. It seems as though this is new territory for them and they have left the door open for more dialogue. Most parents also seem to agree that at the very least, the wordage was “insensitive” and they seem sympathetic to the cause. I can appreciate those who say, “ I don’t know how I’d feel reading this assignment if I were a person of color.” To put things into perspective, take whatever is near and dear to you and apply your own critical thinking. Can you think of the pros and cons of abortion? Can you try to list them? Or the pros and cons of euthanasia for special needs people or the elderly? Can you list those? You are asking 13-15
    year old students (some who are students of color) to critically think of the pros and cons of human trafficking for people of color, which I might add is a federal crime. Is it no wonder the student’s parents were taken a back, especially when 1 in every 6 runaway teens end up in human bondage?
    And now the student. This 8th grade class has just finished reading, “ To Kill a Mockingbird.”
    The students, some of your own children, seem to have betrayed their fellow classmate. They, along with some parents, (shame on grownups) have bombarded him with cyber bullying, blaming “him and his parent” for the removal of their teacher. It was the “Teacher’s Choice” to put out the assignment and “GHMV’s Choice,” to put the teacher on leave. A campaign to shun the student and bring back the teacher with Harper Lee’s quote of “# It is a sin to Kill a Mockingbird,” has been widely circulated on campus and on the internet. The book, as we all know, tells the story of a person of color being wrongly convicted, as the townspeogple choose to overlook the lack of evidence against him. The problem with this narrative is that these students have given the role of the “wrongly accused” to the Anglo Teacher and the Mexican-American student is being blamed as the lying accuser. This irony in itself would have me seriously rethinking all of this “Critical thinking” of 8th graders, how it’s being taught and how much of it is truly being understood.
    Such a shame for a bright young man who only dared to ask a question, have all of this to contend with. We should have more brave students like him, students who are not afraid to ask questions. As Trevor Noah said on “The Daily Show,” to a round of applause, “This student should get an A for life!” These are young spirits who are passionate about life, who truly seemed to believe in the motto of the school, “The pursuit of Truth, Goodness and Beauty.” I hope he can hold on to those virtues after he’s left your campus. Not because of your student body but in spite of them, because right now he seems to be experiencing the opposite, “Lies, Awfulness and Ugliness.” Unfortunately Great Heart, I imagine, must feel like a Great Hate. I hope the rest of you try to live up to the positive words of the school, if this is what you really believe in.
    Better yet, teach your kids these virtues by setting the example of forgiveness through understanding and giving them the proper tools to attain it.
    Live in Peace, Love in Action.

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