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Students in a third-grade classroom in Salem.
Students in a third-grade classroom in Salem.Cody O'Loughlin/NYT

The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.

A group of parents whose children attend New England private schools has mobilized to fight for “true diversity of thought” in classrooms, an effort resembling those launched elsewhere in the country in the spring by conservative groups and families against what they describe as the “indoctrination” of students with “woke” ideas about race and social issues.

The campaign by the new, Boston-based group Parents United was prompted by parents’ glimpses into their children’s remote classrooms during the pandemic, said Ashley Jacobs, the executive director. (The group is not related to the non-profit Massachusetts Parents United.) Disturbed by content they found one-sided, inflammatory, or age-inappropriate, they asked two organizations that work closely with the region’s private schools, the Association of Independent Schools in New England and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, to intervene to protect free speech and an inclusive range of views on the K-12 campuses they serve.

Similar efforts elsewhere in the country have been promoted by conservative media, and dismissed by liberals as a Republican scare tactic, following a year of social unrest that sparked protests and intense dialogue about race.

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The website for the new Boston-based group avoids partisan politics, focusing instead on the claim that students are “being taught what to think, rather than how.” Since May, the website has attracted some 4,000 unique users and 400 newsletter subscribers, said Jacobs. The group includes Republican donor Chris Egan and his wife, Jean, on its advisory board, but Jacobs said its message is not political.

“We’re not picking a side — that’s the opposite of what we want,” she said. “Our goal is to empower parents to advocate for their children … We don’t want people to feel scared to ask a question, or kids to be afraid to say anything because there are so many people [they] can offend.”

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Jacobs teamed up with three other Boston moms to launch Parents United in May, spurred by a range of concerns, she said: the failure of some schools to make room for dissenting views on social issues, which left some students afraid to express their opinions; the use of programs designed by outside consultants instead of in-house educators; and the amount of time spent on ideological, non-academic subjects.

Some parents “saw things that shocked them” in online classes, said Jacobs, including a lesson asking middle school students to consider their gender identity; a discussion that assumed students’ support for the Black Lives Matter movement; and a request that students not use gender-specific language. Parents also overheard sessions on principles and values they had assumed would be left to them to teach their children as they wished, she said.

She declined to identify the specific schools involved, citing worry that they might retaliate against students whose parents are involved.

The parents sought guidance from national groups aligned with their mission — the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, and 1776 Unites among them — and drafted letters to the two regional accrediting groups asking for a meeting to air their concerns.

Leaders of the two accreditation groups declined the parents’ request to meet, saying their role is to review each school’s programs and ensure they are aligned with its individual mission, not to revise standards based on input from outside organizations.

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Claire Leheney, executive director of AISNE, said many schools that were already addressing topics of race and equity accelerated their programming in the past year.

“Parents have had a range of emotions and responses,” she said. “Many parents feel affirmed and excited about it … and some schools have seen resistance from some parents.”

Elsewhere in the country, schools are taking fire for their alleged embrace of critical race theory, an intellectual movement based on the premise that racism persists because it is built into the country’s foundational structures. Critics, including one math teacher who was dismissed from his job at a New York City private school, say those ideas are divisive, anti-American, and harmful to white students who may end up feeling bad about their race.

State legislatures have leapt into the fray: Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas recently adopted bans on teaching critical race theory, and Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island have considered banning “divisive concepts” or “political, ideological or religious advocacy” in classrooms.

Debates about liberal bias and free discourse have simmered on college campuses for decades, while tensions in K-12 education have bubbled into public view more recently.

Last June, a middle school teacher in Milton was placed on leave after teaching a poetry lesson in which she made a passing reference to the racism of some white people and police. She was reinstated amid a surge of local support, but some of her colleagues said the incident made them less likely to discuss racism in their own classrooms.

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Meanwhile, national groups such as Parents Defending Education — a new organization “working to reclaim our schools from activists imposing harmful agendas”— are collecting online “incident reports” from angry parents and filing a flurry of complaints, including one against Wellesley schools for creating a safe space for students of color.

“There have always been disputes about this kind of teaching, but it feels like an increase in the intensity and number of standoffs and showdowns, and in the national coordination,” said Meira Levinson, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “There’s an ongoing conversation about how we teach history, and whose, and to what end ... People, and political parties, are paying more attention to that, so it is increasingly politicized.”

Parents United is seeking nonprofit status, Jacobs said, plans to hold a conference for parents in Boston in October, and is surveying students and parents about their school experiences.

An online survey asks students if teachers “expect me to actively agree with his/her opinions” and if they “fear retaliation if they stray from the teacher’s preferred views.”

Jacobs said parents have a right to know what their kids are learning and who is teaching it.

“It’s hard to talk about this, and I think that’s why more parents don’t stand up,” said Jacobs. “But there’s more damage to be done by staying silent and allowing it to continue.”

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Several Massachusetts private schools did not respond to questions from a reporter. But Groton School, northwest of Boston, reported widespread support from families for its increased efforts to acknowledge racism and instill a more inclusive culture.

Since hiring its first Black headmaster, Temba Maqubela, in 2013, Groton has raised a record-breaking $68.5 million to help improve access for students from diverse backgrounds, while adding new courses dedicated to underrepresented groups and regularly discussing social issues.

“It is very clear where the school stands,” a spokeswoman, Gail Friedman, said. “Attending Groton is a choice, and parents who send their children here know the school’s mission and values.”


Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.