NORTH OGDEN — Criticism poured in from across the country after the Standard-Examiner reported last month that Maria Montessori Academy would give parents the choice to opt their children out of Black History Month curriculum — a decision the school later rescinded.
The move came after the K-9 charter school reportedly received “requests from a few families asking to not participate,” according to a statement written by school Director Micah Hirokawa. Reactions to the school offering the option ran the gamut, as some voiced support for parents exercising educational choice, and others criticized the decision as one that promotes racism.
As coverage of the charter school’s opt-out option spread, people began to question whether the school’s actions were in compliance with government standards, and what policies — or lack thereof — allowed the school to make such a decision.
Hirokawa was hired as director of the school in April 2020 after the sudden departure of the previous director, René Baker, who had worked at Maria Montessori Academy for just two years. Under a prior director, the charter school may have had an opportunity to take a closer look at how it approaches diversity, equity and inclusion, especially when it comes to Black students.
When Ronnie White-Simon’s daughter was a fourth grader at Maria Montessori Academy during the 2016-17 academic year, she was one of a small number of Black students. The Standard-Examiner is choosing not to publish her minor daughter’s name to protect her identity. Her best friends were a white boy and white girl in her class, which was comprised of a combination of fourth, fifth and sixth graders.
In their classroom was a snack area, which included knives to cut food, if needed. According to White-Simon, her daughter and the two friends were together in the snack area when they decided to take out the knives and began waving them around and, in a playful manner, threatening each other. White-Simon said she later found out there was no adult supervision in the classroom at the time.
The school later called White-Simon to tell her about the incident, she said, saying her daughter could not return to school until White-Simon met with the assistant director at the academy. The parents of one of the other children were also threatening to file a police report, she said.
When White-Simon and her daughter went to the school for their meeting with the assistant director, she said the assistant director and other school officials who were present had laid a knife on the table.
“It was like we were being investigated for a murder or something,” White-Simon said.
School officials began asking her fourth grade daughter probing questions, she said, like “Is this the knife that was used?” White-Simon asked them to put the knife away, saying her daughter was scared.
“She was very apologetic, my daughter, and all she wanted to do was make it go away,” White-Simon said.
Her daughter wrote a letter apologizing to her friends, White-Simon noted. But according to White-Simon, that wasn’t enough for school officials. She said they allegedly asked her entire class, in a group setting, if they were scared of her daughter.
Because there were no adults in the room when the incident occurred, White-Simon said administrators were relying entirely on the stories of the children. The school decided to expel her daughter while, according to White-Simon, the two white students were not disciplined for engaging in the same behavior.
“That didn’t sit right with me,” White-Simon said. So, she contacted the NAACP.
According to White-Simon, the organization discovered staff at the school were inadequately trained to deal with disciplinary situations like her daughter’s. Its intervention, she said, led to the school readmitting her daughter and working with the organization to improve its policies surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion.
White-Simon and her daughter decided together that she would not return to the school. She now attends junior high school in a public school district.
It’s unclear whether Maria Montessori Academy made any changes to its policies surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion after the NAACP stepped in. The organization’s action took place under a previous president of the Ogden NAACP chapter, who has since passed away, according to current President Betty Sawyer. Consequently, the chapter is unable to determine what changes were requested.
Maria Montessori Academy declined to comment on this specific incident, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
“While we cannot provide specific information on the situation you described, I would note that one of the enumerated purposes of our Student Conduct and Discipline Policy is to respect the civil rights of all members of our school community, and this policy expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, or sex,” Hirokawa wrote in an email. “Moreover, our policy and the law provide additional safeguards and remedies to protect against discrimination in any type of student discipline.”
In Maria Montessori Academy’s civil rights policy, which is posted to its website and was last updated in August 2020, it says the school prohibits “unequally applying disciplinary action based on a student’s race, color, or national origin.”
The school’s charter application, which was submitted to the Utah State Charter School Board in 2008 prior to its opening in 2010, discusses the “economic diversity” it would seek to enroll, but not how it would recruit a student body that is diverse in any other categories.
According to enrollment data from the Utah State Board of Education, approximately 69.6% of the 322 students currently enrolled at the school are white, while 23.3% are Hispanic, 4% identify as belonging to multiple races, just over 1% are Asian and fewer than 1% are African American, with Pacific Islander students also coming in below 1%. There are no American Indian students.
Maria Montessori Academy is generally more diverse than the Weber School District, where it is located. Throughout the entire district, 81.3% of students are white. The open-enrollment charter school is located, however, approximately 1.5 miles from the Ogden School District. That district is one of two majority non-white school districts in Utah, with 50.9% identifying as Hispanic and 2% as African American.
The school’s charter application goes on to address the diversity in instruction that is promoted by the philosophy of Maria Montessori — an Italian educator whose work focused on inclusivity and lifting up the poor. The application says her method “specifically addresses diversity in communities by providing a child-centered, individualized approach to teaching and learning. MMA’s educational approach addresses the community’s diversity to ensure that no child is left behind.”
Hirokawa told the Standard-Examiner in an email in February that faculty at the school are regularly trained on this philosophy as well as the policies and procedures at the school. He added that “going forward, I do feel it is important to receive training focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion to improve our capacity to address these types of sensitive issues.”
According to emails obtained by the Standard-Examiner, Hirokawa has been working to improve the school’s approach to diversity, equity and inclusion since he was hired.
“I’m sorry this hit the news before I was able to fix some of the systems and processes that existed prior to my leadership,” he told Sawyer in an email exchange regarding the opt-out decision.
In another email to Sawyer, he said, “I have done all I can to fix the process here at our school. Please know that this mindset was here before I arrived and as an Asian American ... this was never acceptable to me.”
Hirokawa did not respond to a request for comment regarding what “systems and processes” he is trying to fix and the “mindset” that existed at the charter school prior to his arrival.
State initiatives on diversity and choice
Utah is a state that prioritizes a parent’s choices when it comes to the education of their children.
According to the Center for Education Reform, which advocates for school choice and advancing the charter school movement, Utah was ranked as the ninth state in its 2020 “Parent Power! Index.” The index, among other things, analyzes the extent to which a state “affords parents the power to exercise fundamental decisions regarding how their kids are educated.”
During its most recent session, which ended last week, the Utah State Legislature passed the House Concurrent Resolution on Education. Although it doesn’t have any legal power, the resolution “reaffirms that the state is secondary to and supportive of the primary role of a parent in educating the parent’s children.”
State laws already in place reflect that position. Currently, Utah Code says if a “student’s participation in a portion of the curriculum or in an activity would require the student to affirm or deny a religious belief or right of conscience,” a parent can request a waiver of the requirement to participate or a “reasonable alternative” to the instruction.
Not all states have such statutes. Some states don’t allow students to opt out of any curriculum, while others let parents opt their students out of one or two subjects, like sex education and other health-related instruction. Like Utah, some have broader opt-out allowances. At least 36 states have some form of opt-out provisions on the books.
When a Utah student does request a waiver, the decision whether to grant it is left up to each individual school. So in the case of Maria Montessori Academy, the school had the authority to grant waivers to parents who did not want their children to participate in Black History Month instruction.
Educators at public schools throughout Utah, even if they are operating a charter school, are expected to adhere to the Utah State Board of Education’s Professional Standards, according to board spokesperson Mark Peterson. Those standards prohibit educators from “(excluding) a student from participating in any program, deny or grant any benefit to a student, or encourage a student to develop a prejudice on the basis of” race, color, national origin, political or religious belief, and other factors.
Maria Montessori Academy’s decision, some argued afterward, enabled parents to push racism on their children. It also demonstrated a lack of awareness of students of color, others said. In an email to Hirokawa, Sawyer said “This is extremely disturbing and disheartening to know that students at the elementary age get to experience this type of racism first hand.”
School boards overseeing both school districts and charter schools throughout the state are not required to develop policies addressing diversity, equity and inclusion or training around it, per se. Instead, they are mandated by both state law and state school board rules to develop policies and training regarding hazing and bullying, which Peterson said wraps in diversity, equity and inclusion issues, to an extent.
State law also requires that school boards establish conduct and discipline polices for students to ensure the “opportunity to learn in an environment which is safe, conducive to the learning process, and free from unnecessary disruption.”
On its website, the Utah State Board of Education has published a model policy regarding bullying, hazing and retaliation that school boards overseeing districts or charters may adopt. That policy specifically includes prohibition of bullying or hazing based on race.
When it comes to curriculum, state code requires that schools teach civics and character to the end that students develop “skills, habits, and qualities of character which will promote an upright and desirable citizenry.” And the state school board’s “Portrait of a Graduate,” approved in May 2019, says that graduates from Utah schools should “acknowledge differences by looking for the good in everyone, including oneself, and show due regard for feelings, rights, cultures, and traditions.”
As it continues to craft rules that guide K-12 education in the state, the Utah State Board of Education in January adopted a Resolution Denouncing Racism and Embracing Equity in Utah Schools.
“The resolution stands as the model by which the board will move forward and hopes others can use as a model for their own efforts,” Peterson wrote in an email.
The Utah State Charter School Board, which approved and oversees Maria Montessori Academy’s charter, also approved a resolution addressing race in schools at a Feb. 11 meeting. Called Resolution in Support of All Utah Students, it says, “We support schools where all students and their families feel welcomed, appreciated, and safe; where students are respected and loved regardless of their race.”
“There is so much beauty in what we are trying to do with the charter school movement here in our state because it allows communities to find each other, it allows people to find each other and create these educational opportunities and spaces and places that people could only dream of,” board member Stephanie Speicher said during discussion of the resolution. “It’s delicate, though. And that to me is what I hope that this resolution provides — some direction for everyone that is deeply invested in educating our children.”
Speicher, who is Jewish, recounted her experience growing up in rural Maryland, where she said students would chase her home yelling, “We love Hitler!” and feel for horns on her head while she was riding the bus.
“There is a reason why we are having this conversation and there is a reason why we have this resolution,” she said.
In addition to diversity training offered — but not mandated — by the state school board, USCSB offers similar training opportunities to the schools it has authorized, according to Executive Director Jennifer Lambert. USCSB also has measures for holding schools accountable.
Currently, the board works off of an accountability framework as part of the oversight of its schools. That framework includes three types of reviews — an annual review, a comprehensive review at least once every five years and ongoing monitoring for compliance.
The board assesses a school’s performance in numerous categories, including enrollment, students achievement, finances and any complaints the board may have received about the school. According to a discussion at a Jan. 14 USCSB meeting, it may be adjusting that framework soon.
“I think that it is a good time to maybe take a look at it, and take a look at the things that maybe we could tweak a little bit and adjust after learning some things,” Lambert said at the meeting.
One of the elements it is considering implementing into a new version of the framework is equity. The school board at that meeting approved a motion to instruct staff at USCSB to consider equity and accessibility in its drafting of a new framework for consideration.
While the change — if made — may allow USCSB to take into greater consideration the experiences of students of color, like those had at Maria Montessori Academy, the responsibility for improving and holding a charter school accountable first falls on that school’s own governing board.
“The good thing about having each (local education agency) have their own board is that it cuts down on the bureaucracy and the layers that people have to go through to effect change,” said USCSB Chair DeLaina Tonks at a Feb.11 meeting, addressing recent issues in Utah charter schools. “It makes charter schools more nimble. It also creates this immediate layer of accountability.”
In cases of discrimination, each charter school is also staffed with or has appointed a Title VI coordinator, who ensures that the school is in compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Even with some protections in place and changes promoting racial equity on the horizon, some parents of Black students find it difficult to be optimistic that their children will go through school without experiencing some form of discrimination. From Ronnie White-Simon’s perspective, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“A lot of schools in Utah, in general, they just don’t have good policies in place to handle race issues, and that’s sad,” White-Simon said. “I just don’t feel like it’s over.”