Central York's book ban had unintended consequences. Namely, math

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch

In August 2020, Central York's school board was presented with new teaching curriculum in four subjects against a backdrop of several years of declining standardized test scores.

Notably, its members spent very little time talking about curriculum.

Instead, the board was more concerned with how a list of resources developed by Central York's diversity committee — which did not play a role in any of the curriculum pilots — would influence students and teachers.

Students arrive at Central York High School in Springettsbury Township, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Though members mainly worried about the list's influence on one subject, social studies, the board opted to table all four proposals until further notice.

“I believe there is wisdom in this waiting,” then-board member Veronica Gemma said at the meeting.

That comment foreshadowed a long wait that remains ongoing. To this day, none of the four curriculum pilots have been approved, and one more pilot — a K-8 math program — was added to the pile earlier this year. 

Meanwhile, Central York's curriculum is suffering in multiple areas, according to students and teachers. Students Unique Fields and Edha Gupta said the district’s history courses largely focus on white history, and each of them had to actively search for education about other cultures. 

“I don’t want to hear about my people in chains and then skip straight to the civil rights movement and then Obama’s presidency,” Fields said.

Central York High School graduate Unique Fields, 19, of North York Borough, is shown at his former school in Springettsbury Township, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.  Dawn J. Sagert photo

New board members Wendy Crane and Amy Milsten, a Republican and a Democrat, also identified one of Central York's middle school math programs, college preparatory math, as an area in desperate need of improvement. 

The need for change is reflected in the district’s state assessment scores, which have been declining since 2017. Central York's math scores in the Keystone Exams dropped by about 6% between 2018 and 2019 alone, with scores expected to drop again nationwide as the COVID-19 pandemic fueled learning loss. 

How did this happen: 

Lauri Brady, who has written curriculum for Central York for 25 years, said the district never had any issues approving new curriculum until last year. 

Curriculum is typically updated every five years, with different subjects set in different cycles. In 2020, Central York was set to approve four new curriculum pilots: social studies, English language arts, library studies and guidance. 

The pilots were introduced to the board at a planning meeting on Aug. 10, 2020. That was when Gemma brought up her issues with the resource list, which included materials by some of today's most acclaimed creators of color. 

Gemma — later followed by another now-former board member, Ed Speed, and current member Vicki Guth — was concerned that the resources would allow teachers to push their political beliefs on students as part of their lessons. 

"Looking at these benchmarks, they sound really great," Gemma said. "My concern has everything to do with who's teaching it. It has everything to do with the ideals of the person who's teaching it."

Brady said the district’s curriculum writers were not focused on promoting diversity in the curriculum proposals. The only time diversity was addressed was in the guidance curriculum, which goes to school guidance counselors, for how to work with students who had questions about the Black Lives Matter movement that was prevalent in 2020. 

That was never brought up by the board as an issue of concern. 

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Although the diversity committee’s resource list was never part of any of the proposed curriculum, the board didn't clarify that until months later. That in turn colored the public's perception and response to the board's discussions. 

Central York residents protested outside the board's meetings during the fall of 2020, accusing both Gemma and Guth of racism and calling for their resignations. But during the meetings, a majority of the dozens of public comments the board heard expressed opposing beliefs, criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement and critical race theory, which is not taught in Central York schools.

Possibly as a result of such rhetoric, a public speaker who was scheduled to host diversity training for Central York staff canceled around the same time as the meetings. The board never named the speaker, but former member Mike Wagner mentioned that she was employed by the YWCA. 

“It is my guess that she decided to cancel for the exact reason we needed her to speak,” Wagner said. 

Wagner attempted to move the curriculum forward at the board’s Oct. 19, 2020, meeting, but his motion to take the pilots off the table failed in a 4-5 vote. By that point, the difference between the resource list and the curriculum was so “muddied,” as board member Jodi Grothe put it, that she proposed killing the list in an attempt to separate the two. 

The board voted unanimously Nov. 9, 2020, to ban all resources on the list from classroom use. The only exception was if a teacher was already using something on the list, in which case they could continue using that resource.

After that, none of the four pilots was ever brought back for board approval. 

Wagner, along with former board president Jane Johnson, recently declined to comment on Central York's curriculum. 

How this impacts schools:

Though board members argued that they weren’t anti-diversity in banning the list, Central York students and teachers say there is room for more representation of other cultures in the district. 

Central York has become an increasingly diverse school district in recent years, according to diversity education specialist Delma Lytle. Minority students make up nearly 30% of the district’s student body, but that diversity is not reflected in Central York’s teaching staff or administration, Lytle said. 

Up until this year’s election, which brought Corey Thurman onto the board, Central York’s school board was made up of all white members. That detail was brought up several times by students regarding their concerns with the book ban. 

“Who are we to criticize the addition of diversity curriculum if not a single person in this room identifies as a person of color?” the board’s former student representative, Emma Olney, said last year. 

After the book ban was reversed earlier this year, Lytle said, teachers were still hesitant to use the resources on the list for fear of public backlash. One Central York teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said the board’s actions had a lasting impact on teacher morale. 

The book ban and its aftermath had a “chilling effect on teachers,” they said. Now, many Central York educators are teaching while looking over their shoulder and are afraid to bring in new materials or even mention specific words like “feminism” or “social justice” in their classrooms. 

“We have teachers that are too afraid to stray,” the teacher said. 

More:'Afraid to teach': School's book ban targeted Black, Latino authors

More:Central York School District reverses diversity book ban: 'We have heard you'

The lack of representation also impacts the district’s curriculum. 

When Gupta, now a Central York senior, was a sophomore, she took AP World History, which she said was the first time she got an in-depth education about other cultures at Central York. Because it was an Advanced Placement course, the curriculum was developed at the college level, not by the district. 

Central York’s curriculum is also lacking in LGBTQ representation and women’s history, the anonymous teacher said. It is important to teach about these subjects so students who are members of minority groups feel safe and represented and because it educates all students, they said. 

“By excluding things that are painful about history, you scrub history,” the teacher said. 

Wendy Crane, Central York school board candidate

Beyond representing diversity, other subjects also need an update at Central York. New board members Milsten and Crane mentioned in interviews that college preparatory math, a program used in grades 6-8, is a program in serious need of improvement. 

"It's not my favorite program," Crane said. 

College preparatory math, or CPM, divides students into teams and provides them with analytical math problems that they’re expected to work through independently. According to Crane, the program is meant to help students figure out math on their own. 

While students can ask teachers questions, the self-guided learning model is difficult for many students, Crane and Milsten said. Crane’s four children participated in the program, and though they did well, she said they did not feel confident in their progress. 

“The curriculum itself is holding back these students,” Milsten said. 

Since around 2017, Central York’s state assessment scores have been declining for all subjects, both in the Keystone Exams and the PSSAs. 

Although Gupta felt prepared for the Keystones, that might not be because of the district’s help. She was taking AP Biology at the time she took her biology assessment, and she said her SAT preparation helped her through her literature assessment. 

Central York graduate Fields opted out of the Keystones, but he still felt that many of his core classes largely focused on preparing students for the assessments, to the detriment of his education. To make time for test prep, Fields said, his classes skipped over things he needed to learn. 

Fields attended York City schools before transferring to Central York for high school. Instead of dedicating most of their curriculum to test preparation, Fields said, York City’s core classes typically spent a week helping students prepare for the tests. 

Panther Anti-Racist Student Union organizer Edha Gupta speaks at rally outside the Central York School District Administration offices before a school board meeting there Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. The rally was in opposition to a banned resource list instituted by the district, which demonstrators say targets minority authors. District officials added formal discussion of the ban to Monday's agenda. Gupta is a Central York High School senior. Bill Kalina photo

Although York City’s assessment scores are still lower than Central York’s across the board, York City’s scores have increased slightly in recent years, unlike Central York’s. Fields said he preferred York City’s approach to the assessments, but he doesn’t believe standardized tests are an accurate measurement of a student’s intelligence in the first place.

“Five days of tests isn’t going to tell you how smart I am,” Fields said. 

The math problem:

Due to the district’s declining test scores, curriculum writer Brady said officials requested an update to Central York’s math curriculum ahead of its five-year schedule.

This time, instead of the curriculum being written by district staff, the board instructed staff in January to work with consultants and propose a math program that was developed by an outside company. 

The program they proposed met the same fate as the other four curriculum pilots: tabled. 

The proposed program was called “Into Math,” a K-8 program developed by publishing company HMH. Brady described the program as a step above another HMH program, “Go Math,” which several York County school districts use. 

The board first heard about that program in May, and at the time, they didn’t appear to have many problems with it. By June, however, multiple board members brought up issues that led to the program being tabled. 

Brady claimed that resistance to diversity yet again played a role in halting the math program’s approval. Because June is Pride month, she said, HMH had an LGBT-friendly message on its website, which upset some Central York parents who then spoke out against the company on social media. 

Wagner backed up Brady’s claim during his comments at the board’s June 21 meeting. 

“It makes me crazy that an elementary math program has become a political issue,” Wagner said.

All board members, except for Gemma, denied that they were concerned about the politics of HMH. Board members Guth and Tim Strickler claimed they had several questions that either went unanswered or weren’t satisfied by the information they were given. 

Central York School Board candidate Victoria Gemma talks with a supporter at the polls at Zion Lutheran Church in Manchester Township on Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. Bill Kalina photo

Among these questions were: Why does Central York need this program? How much does the program rely on technology? How will Central York measure the success of the program?

Brady said staff tried to answer all of the board’s questions to the best of their ability. Before the June 21 meeting, when the program was officially tabled, Brady said, staff provided bags of resources about the Into Math program, but only one board member had taken one. 

Other board members, like Grothie, took issue with the fact that Central York was in the process of selecting a new superintendent. Former superintendent Michael Snell announced his plans to retire in May, and Grothie said she would prefer getting the new superintendent’s opinion on the program before approving it.

More:String of departures at Central York show ongoing tensions after book ban controversy

Former board president Jane Johnson warned that waiting for new administrators to come in could delay the new curriculum up to two years because of other important issues that would demand their attention. 

“I would hate to see the efforts of our staff, and the team that worked on this for quite some time, to go to the wayside,” Johnson said. 

A bigger role:

The board’s desire to have a more involved role in curriculum oversight has received mixed reactions from the Central York community. Speed said the goal is simply to increase transparency about the resources used in the classroom, but some of his suggestions for doing so were criticized as impractical. 

At a Jan. 25 meeting, Speed claimed that Central York’s policy required teachers to get administrative or board approval on any new resource they wanted to use in the classroom.

That idea was disputed by district officials at the meeting. Central York Middle School principal Kelly Harper said she doesn't review every resource her teachers use, but teachers do come to her when they intend to make a more significant change to their classroom material.

"That autonomy, and some of that creativity, that both teachers and students have is what makes the craft of teaching," Harper said. 

The anonymous Central York teacher described Speed's idea as “insanity.” They said it would take way too long and would diminish teachers’ authority. 

Brady argued that districtwide curriculum shouldn’t restrict teachers to specific resources or daily lesson plans, because that takes away from the teachers' independence. She said many teachers adjust their curriculum every year based on their students’ needs.

“Each year you make it better, and you make it yours,” Brady said. 

Central York School Board candidate Amy Yankowitz-Milsten waits for voters while campaigning at the City View Community Church polling location in Manchester Township, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.  Dawn J. Sagert photo

To accommodate the board’s request, Central York’s curriculum writers are now presenting more information about curriculum pilots in what they call unit maps. Brady said the maps provide a framework based on the state standards, instructional strategies, skills that students will learn and some of the resources used in the course. 

Central York's board took another big step in creating a curriculum committee, which held its first meeting Oct. 20. The committee was recently stalled because of turnover among the board, with Gemma, the committee’s chair, not earning reelection and Wagner not seeking reelection.

At the board’s Dec. 13 meeting, the committee's empty seats were filled by new board members Crane and Rebecca Riek. Both work as teachers outside Central York — Crane at York College and Riek with York City. Grothie, the other member on the committee, said she hopes to hold the next meeting in January. 

More:New era dawns at Central York School District with fleet of new board members

While Gemma’s involvement on the committee initially worried some, most of the Central York community seems to believe the curriculum committee is a step in the right direction for the district. Brady said she thinks the committee is a good idea, although she hopes the members can keep their personal concerns separate and not allow them to affect the district.

Although the last year has been difficult for Central York, Lytle said it may help the district move forward. Now, she said, the district is in a position to put the controversies behind it and work on becoming a leader in the community again. 

“I don’t want this to be our legacy,” Lytle said. 

Staff writer Tina Locurto contributed reporting to this story.

Reach Erin Bamer at ebamer@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter @ErinBamer.