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.
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.
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.
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.
- “Homework assignment asks students to list positive aspects of slavery,” Paul P. Murphy, CNN, April 20, 2018
- “San Antonio Teacher Placed On Leave After Assigning Students To List Benefits Of Slavery,” Camille Phillips, Texas Public Radio, April 20, 2018
- “San Antonio school responds to assignment asking students to list ‘positives’ of slavery,” Madalyn Mendoza, San Antonio Express-News, April 20, 2018
- “School Apologizes For Asking Students To List ‘Positive Aspects’ Of Slavery,” Elyse Wanshel, Huffington Post, April 20, 2018
- “Homework at Texas charter school asks students to list ‘positive aspects’ of slavery,” Tom Steele & Corbett Smith, Dallas Morning News, April 19, 2018
- “San Antonio charter school apologizes for ‘insensitive’ assignment about slavery,” KABB, April 19, 2018
- “Great Hearts Charter Officials Decry Lesson That Sought ‘Positive,’ ‘Negative’ Aspects of Slavery,” Emily Donaldson, Rivard Report, April 19, 2018
Edited to add:
- “Great Hearts will reinstate San Antonio teacher who assigned ‘positives’ of slavery worksheet,” Madalyn Mendoza, San Antonio Express-News, May 10, 2018
- “Trevor Noah blasts San Antonio school’s ‘positives’ of slavery assignment on The Daily Show,” Madalyn Mendoza, San Antonio Express-News, May 8, 2018