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Caught in a culture war, the Georgetown day school holds fast to its mission

WASHINGTON — A decade after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in 1954, the president of a neighborhood association here wrote a letter urging leaders of local private schools to stop awarding scholarships to advance the cause of integration, saying it was “unhealthy and reckless to have such a mixed student body.

One of the founders of Georgetown Day School, which had then been integrated for 20 years and whose population was a quarter black, responded.

Edith Nash, one of the school’s founders, noted that not only had it “always had more white applicants for scholarship aid than black ones,” but “our goal is to have a completely mixed registration,” according to the letter, parts of which were published in The Washington Post that year.

“If you think this population is ‘mixed’,” she added, “that’s your problem.”

Nearly 60 years later, Washington’s first integrated school still firmly embraces the mission of its founders. Georgetown Day has come under the national microscope this week in the escalating culture war against teaching anti-racism in schools.

The war spilled over into confirmation hearings for Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first black woman appointed to the Supreme Court, who has served on the board of Georgetown Day since 2019.

The elite private school has become the target of Republican senators, who have described it as the poster child for critical race theory, an academic term that conservatives have co-opted to challenge efforts to teach children the race. racism and inequality.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, took aim at Georgetown Day in her introductory remarks at Judge Jackson’s hearing on Monday. The school had run a ‘woke kindergarten’ programme, Ms Blackburn claimed, and had taught 5-year-olds that they could choose their gender and was ‘pushing an anti-racism education program for white families’.

Ms Blackburn told Judge Jackson that her ‘public endorsement of this type of progressive indoctrination of our children raises great concern about how you can adjudicate cases involving parental rights’.

But many parents, students and alumni of Georgetown Day say the school’s history of social justice activism and anti-racism efforts are the reason they chose to enroll there.

In interviews, many in the school community proudly cited Georgetown Day’s founding value of racial equality in defiance of segregation laws. The idea that students were being indoctrinated — and that the school’s core values ​​were being weaponized against the first black woman appointed to the Supreme Court — was as unfair as it was insulting, they said.

“The founding of Georgetown Day School exemplifies the best of this country: people from diverse backgrounds coming together to make their community a better place for all,” said Debra Perlin, parent of a first year student. She described the school as a “stimulating, caring and academically rigorous environment.”

Forty percent of the 1,075 children who attend the school identify as students of color. Georgetown Day’s academic vision is central to promoting openness and a collective commitment to justice, parents said; it held a Transgender visibility day last year and a week of Black Lives Matter events This year.

Fellow parent Chris Suarez said he wouldn’t describe his kindergarten as “woke” but worldly. “My son brings home books that reflect the diversity of cultures in the United States, that open him up to many different perspectives,” he said. “And I think that’s a valuable thing.”

Conservative lawmakers have attempted to portray Justice Jackson as a champion of critical race theory based on her past citations of authors and texts used to shape modern civil rights debates — namely, Derrick Bell, the lawyer widely credited with founding critical race theory, and Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the New York Times 1619 Project.

But Georgetown Day emerged as a surprising target.

Located in the wealthy neighborhood of Tenleytown in northwest Washington, the school has educated children from the liberal and conservative elite for decades. Parents who choose to enroll their children adhere to its mission, by more than $40,000 per year.

That the program was barely forced on families seeking school seemed to matter little to the Republicans who injected it into Judge Jackson’s hearings.

One of the most racist questions came from Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who said on Tuesday that the Georgetown Day program was “filled and overflowing with critical race theory.” Flanked by an enlarged page of ‘Antiracist Baby,’ by Ibrahim X. Kendi, Mr. Cruz held up book after book that he described as school assigned reading and asked Judge Jackson if she approved their messages.

He went to read a passage from another of Dr. Kendi’s books“Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism and You”, which is also in the library catalog and on the playlists at private school in Houston attended by Mr. Cruz’s children.

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr Cruz said his questions were not intended to suggest that parents did not know what their children were learning, or that there should be action taken against the school – which would undermine principles such as school choice and private school. the autonomy that the Republicans defend.

“I say Judge Jackson is a board member of a school that aggressively teaches critical race theory,” he said, “and that is an extreme and divisive theory. that pits children against other children, divides us based on race, and teaches a false and revisionist history of our nation.

Judge Jackson told Mr. Cruz that she had not reviewed the books and that they were not in her work.

But what resonated most with members of the Georgetown Day community was his description of the school’s “peculiar history,” citing the Jewish and black families who came together to create the institution in 1945 because their children could not attend public schools together.

“The idea of ​​equality, of justice, is central to the mission of the Georgetown Day School,” said Judge Jackson, whose parents attended separate schools. said to Mr. Cruz. “This is a private school such that every parent who joins the community does so voluntarily, knowing that they are joining a community designed to ensure that every child is valued, that every child is treated as having inherent worth, and none are discriminated against because of their race.

Aidan Kohn-Murphy, a senior at Georgetown Day and president of the Student Staff Council, its student government, said he was “confused” by the “trick questions” given the school’s history.

Mr. Kohn-Murphy has attended Georgetown Day since fourth grade, and he said he did not recall being instructed in critical race theory or reading any of the books Mr. Cruz posted. But along with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’, he said he’s read books that reinforce the idea that ‘the fight against racism isn’t color blind, doesn’t pretend racism isn’t colorblind. ‘does not exist”.

“Nobody indoctrinates anybody,” he added. “We are learning from the past.”

Georgetown Day also taught Mr. Kohn-Murphy how to weigh various perspectives, he said. In eighth grade, students are required to complete a project on a constitutional issue and engage with speakers who hold opposing views. His group chose affirmative action. One of his group’s guest speakers was Edward Blum, the conservative legal strategist who fought to overturn affirmative action in college admissions and helped bring a case against Harvard University to court. the Supreme Court this year.

Judge Jackson is one of 23 members of Georgetown Day Board of Directors; her best friend and roommate in college, Lisa Fairfax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is the chair of the board. Justice Jackson wouldn’t be the only Supreme Court justice linked to Georgetown Day: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court’s first black justice, also sent their children there, and Justice Marshall served on his board of directors.

Georgetown Day describes the board as working closely with its principal to ensure its “short and long-term financial health” and to safeguard its “founding purpose as a racially and religiously inclusive school whose Educational philosophy stems from the belief that diversity is the soil from which great learning grows.

Spokespersons for Georgetown Day and its board of directors did not respond to a request for comment.

The Republican National Committee this week sent an email aimed at the recently enacted school Anti-Racism Action Planciting things like affinity groups, which he said amounted to “racial segregation.”

The action plan includes a litany of diversity, inclusion and equity efforts, including “anti-racism education program for white families,“a new mentoring program for teachers of color and considering classroom demographics as part of the student placement process.

AT Parent meeting where the school principal discussed the plan, Ms. Fairfax presented a new provision in the registration contract parents sign, the school newspaper reported in January. The provision required parents to “acknowledge and understand that GDS is an institution that values ​​diversity, equity and inclusion, and is committed to working actively against individual and systemic racism, hate, oppression and bigotry of any kind”. By signing the document, parents agree to join the school’s efforts, he said.

The provision merely formalizes what many former students and parents have described as an unwritten contract understood for decades.

Sean Fine, the parent of a junior who has been at the school since second grade, said his son was learning to deal with the same societal issues the school faced when he graduated in 1992.

“Our children are not robots,” Mr. Fine said. “They are not told what to think, they are taught to question and they are exposed to ideas in an open environment.”

Referring to Mr Cruz’s attack, he added: ‘They are taught to identify things like that – tactics that distract from what we really need to talk about.’

Jonathan Weismann contributed to the reporting, and Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.

Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson