I sat down with Karl Mueller, Coronado Unified School District Superintendent, on Wednesday, August 11 at District Offices. The occasion? To discuss a volatile and controversial national debate that has trickled down to a local level: the supposed teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) at Coronado public schools. Here’s what he had to say.
Coronado Times: First of all, many community members have received a letter from Carl DeMaio, urging them to attend a “town hall meeting” on Monday, August 16 at the Coronado Community Center. The letter alerts that “extreme outside groups are now demanding that the Coronado School board vote to replace a traditional balanced presentation of U.S. History with the controversial ‘Critical Race Theory curriculum.’” Is this true?
Karl Mueller: Absolutely not. There are no outside groups or organizations applying pressure on our governing board to change curricula in our district. CUSD has a very rigorous process for textbook and curriculum adoption that is outlined in board policy; it involves teacher review, community review, and, ultimately board approval. Our curriculum must be aligned to the California state standards and age appropriate. Any changes would be subject to the adoption process, agendized, and discussed in public prior to Board action.
CT: So, contrary to what the letter suggests, there is no upcoming vote at the board meeting on Thursday the 19th to either change curriculum, or adopt Critical Race Theory?
KM: No. The statement is completely false.
CT: Now, for the million-dollar question. People seem to be very confused about what Critical Race Theory is. For the purposes of education at CUSD, what is Critical Race Theory to you?
KM: We are not teaching Critical Race Theory at CUSD. Everyone is conflating any focus on equity or inclusivity as it relates to race under CRT. We are not teaching that one race is inherently good or bad. We are not shaming white people for the past. What we are doing, is we are teaching our students to understand and embrace all human experiences with sensitivity. We will introduce diverse perspectives into our lessons in alignment with the board approved curriculum. We are beholden to teach the California State standards and to deliver age-appropriate experiences for our students. We are focusing on providing supplemental instructional materials to prepare our students for life, in order to ensure every student in our care feels safe, valued, and respected; and training to ensure our teachers feel equipped to teach all content with objectivity and sensitivity.
CT: So, just to be clear: at CUSD, are white students taught that they oppress people of color? Are they taught they should feel “white guilt?” Are they taught they are inherently racist?
KM: Absolutely not. Educators have always had a responsibility to teach diverse perspectives in order for our students to consider and respect all human experiences. Applying a diverse lens broadens understanding, increases awareness, and best prepares our students for life beyond the walls of CUSD.
CT: There is concern that Coronado schools are spending less time on the basics: important subjects like reading, writing, math and science. Is this true?
KM: No. We are beholden to the California state standards and our responsibility and focus is to provide our students with a solid foundation, across all disciplines, for success as they transition from grade level to grade level, school site to school site and, ultimately, to be prepared as they pursue post-secondary options.
CT: Are Coronado school children being taught to be political activists?
KM: I appreciate this question. We have heard from a few community members during public comment that we are promoting activism. I believe it is important to empower our students to be informed and engaged citizens within their communities. To have agency and responsibility. When we look at how change has recently benefited or enhanced our own town, many of those examples are through community and/or individual activism and the result of community members who have identified an area of concern, and have used that awareness and their voice to evoke change. Accessibility playgrounds in our parks, Emerald Keepers environmental efforts with the City, and scores of other initiatives are the direct result of actions of community members using their voice to evoke change. We have a responsibility to teach our students agency and to find and exercise their voice with confidence and determination. But I would not confuse that with political activism.
CT: Today at CUSD we have the Equity committee, and some programs for diversity and inclusion. Are these due to pressure from over-the-bridge, outside groups?
KM: No, but I think it is fair to say that voices within our community have influenced our course of action. In accordance with California state educational code, public schools are to take affirmative steps to combat racism, sexism, and other forms of bias. This is the law, aligned with local long range planning goals, and, bluntly, the right thing to do. Some recent initiatives are in direct response to current and former students sharing experiences that they had while in our care. And if we aren’t being responsive to our student voice, then we are neglecting our primary responsibility. The Equity Committee is made up of stakeholders who expressed interest and volunteered to serve in this committee. It’s designed to help us align efforts with our Board Policy 0415 to meet our California educational code duties. But it was also formed in acknowledgement of information that was brought to our attention that was upsetting to us…as human beings and as educators. We have a duty to every child, every day, and if we learn, or we hear, or we feel, or we sense, that we are falling short on our responsibilities, then it is our responsibility to address these issues with urgency and create systems to prevent them from occurring again.
CT: If, a parent, despite your assurances, is still concerned that Critical Race Theory is being taught in Coronado Schools, and this parent signs a petition opposing CRT, what would be the outcome of this, or the next step?
KM: I would bring any concerns back to existing board policy which outlines how to deliver controversial or sensitive topics and sets standards for teachers to ensure there is a level of objectivity and sensitivity in how they are presented. BP requires a fair and balanced representation of information. The responsibility of educators is to present items of interest, current events, etc., to have our students think critically, synthesize and analyze information and start to shape their own perspectives – not to influence what to think, but how to think. If that petition was brought forward to the governing board, the board would ask me to secure evidence from their concerns—concrete examples that Critical Race Theory is being taught in our schools. If we identify that we have been negligent in adherence to policy we would address that appropriately with staff.
CT: You’ve said a few times that CUSD is not teaching CRT, and yet the allegations persist. Is this a strain on district resources to have to repeatedly explain district policy?
KM: Any topic of interest within our community that impacts teaching and learning is important for us to be responsive to. I will share that our educators understand that there is a heightened level of awareness placed upon what is happening in the classroom, and that being proactive in explaining the purpose of activities is a healthy practice. Prior to the conversion to online learning, teaching was relatively an opaque process. Times have changed and parents are more focused on the teaching-learning process. Teachers are in a whole new world of transparency in which clarifying the ‘why’ of learning interactions needs to be more explicit than ever. Explicitly stating the specific value and rationale of a given learning outcome, and the activities designed to bring that learning about, is imperative. These are healthy exercises for educators to engage in.
CT: Anything you want to add as it pertains to teaching within CUSD?
KM: We have a team of professional dedicated educators in Coronado Unified School District. They are appropriately educated and trained, they are evaluated annually, and they love their students. We need to place our trust in their professional care. If there are instances where we need to redirect, or correct a behavior or a lesson, that’s the responsibility of the administration and our staff, our faculty. But, as parents, our default mechanism should be to trust and to assume good intent. Reach out and ask a teacher directly if you have a question or concern. Our educators are passionate about their subject areas and educating our youth. Being critical without evidence that experiences are taking place within the walls of CUSD places an undue and unfair burden upon the shoulders of our teachers. Teaching is difficult enough without feeling like some constituents don’t trust them.
CT: Let’s talk about the other hot button issue: mask guidelines on campus. A state group called Let Them Breathe is set to host a rally at the August 19th school board meeting, with special guest Mayor Richard Bailey. What are your thoughts on this?
KM: I appreciate the perspectives of our constituents. And as a parent I understand that I have a responsibility to make informed choices regarding the actions and behaviors of my sons. I believe there are appropriate times and places for choice. Where our responsibility as a school district comes into play, is that in California we have a compulsory attendance law. Students are required to attend school. There is no choice to attend or not. You can choose if you want to go to a concert in the park or a Padre game. Students don’t have that choice. We have a responsibility to follow the mandates as set by the County Public Health Office to ensure the safety of our staff and our students. In any context, CUSD will always operate in an abundance of caution as it relates to staff and student safety.
CT: So, CUSD will require masks?
KM: Yes. We will adhere to all published guidelines from the County of Public Health, and today that means mandatory mask-wearing, indoors, by all staff and all students, regardless of vaccination status. Our primary responsibility is teaching and learning and we need to have our students in our buildings five days a week for full-day instruction. That’s our commitment, and we will adhere to those guidelines and we will operate within an abundance of caution to make sure we do everything in our power to keep our students on campus. That’s our priority and that will drive decision-making alongside the health and safety of our staff and student body.
CT: What risks are there if CUSD does not follow these mask guidelines?
KM: The state of California would have the ability to enforce restrictions which may jeopardize our funding. At the county level, our liability insurance is at risk. If we are in violation of County health orders, our insurance could be stripped from us. And most importantly, we could lose the confidence of our community. We are not health practitioners, we are educators. And if the health practitioners at the County of Public Health are advising us in a specific fashion, then it’s our responsibility to follow their directive.
CT: Is there a danger that, if, a certain amount of student or staff contract COVID, we could go back to “Zoom school?”
KM: Going into this school year, that is the biggest concern. There’s a lot of uncertainty. Many of our neighboring districts in South County are back in session as they follow a year-long schedule, and many of them have already had large cohorts of students go into quarantine. Cathedral Catholic High School just postponed their first day of school as a result of staff quarantine. We have an amazing health team, and we have rapid antigen tests readily available to support our efforts in contact tracing, but the only certainty going into this school year, is that it’s going to be uncertain.
CT: So, the ultimate goal is to get everybody safely back on campus, and keep them there?
KM: Absolutely. We want to get them here, and keep them here.
CT: Anything you want to add as it relates to mask-wearing?
KM: We are committed to do what we can control to prevent reverting back into a hybrid or school closure. We will keep our facilities safe and clean and adhere to all CDPH mandates with fidelity. Our efforts are interdependent on the actions and behaviors of our community. Unfortunately, this remains our reality, but our objective will not change – to get our students back full time, in our classrooms, interacting with our staff and with their peers, where we believe we have the most value and benefit as a public school district.
Parents and community members are encouraged to check emails for CUSD updates. The next board meeting will be held on Thursday, August 19th, 4pm at District Offices.