Let’s give a shout out to all the incredible educators and students at Newton North High School.
Teaching and learning these days is hard enough, but these folks are doing it all while sitting in the crosshairs of a cynical, destructive national movement designed to drive suburban parents to Republican candidates and undermine public education.
The school has become a favorite target of Parents Defending Education, a national, so-called grass-roots movement of conservative parents that is in fact connected to deep-pocketed influence-peddlers like fossil fuel fossil Charles Koch and reactionary judicial king-maker Leonard Leo.
This week, the 100 percent genuinely concerned actual parents at Parents Defending Education are freaking out about an event planned for Friday at Newton North, in which a drag queen will speak to students and perform music by Lady Gaga. The appearance, by Missy Steak, will be part of the school’s ToBeGlad day, an annual event to recognize and celebrate the school’s LGBTQ community, organized by students in the Gender Sexuality Alliance, established at Newton North more than 20 years ago. Students also run days to celebrate Black, Asian, and Jewish students, and those with disabilities, among other groups.
Principal Henry Turner says GSA students and their faculty advisers vetted the performer and confirmed that the presentation will be uplifting, age-appropriate, and a way for students to learn more about a community that is being vilified and threatened across the country right now.
A few parents are unhappy about this. Turner has explained to them that every one of the 2,200 students at Newton North deserves to feel as happy and welcome as their kids do.
“Our school has become increasingly diverse, and we pride ourselves on giving all of our students a voice,” Turner said. “That voice is going to make some in the larger community uncomfortable at times.”
Here’s the thing, though: Attendance on Friday is not compulsory. Any student who is not interested in seeing a drag queen, or whose parents forbid them from seeing one, or who believes Lady Gaga songs are played out, or has too much trig to make up, can skip the event. Nobody is making anybody attend.
But that’s not good enough for Parents Defending Education and their sympathizers, who have announced a protest in Newton on Thursday night. It’s not enough that they make narrow-minded choices for their own kids: They want to make those choices for the rest of us, too. We want our children to learn the actual history of this country, think it’s important for them to understand lives different from their own, want all students to feel accepted and comfortable in school. But though we far outnumber them, our rights don’t seem to rate.
So they hammer away at schools in states where Republican-controlled legislatures ban books, shrink lessons, and threaten educators who don’t comply with their narrow beliefs. And they fuel a vicious ecosystem that brings harassment and headaches for educators, even in states they can’t control, like Massachusetts. In addition to this latest crusade against Newton North, Parents Defending Education have targeted the school for a student theater production they claimed, incorrectly, excluded white kids, and for a mentorship program aimed at students of color.
It takes a toll.
“It is absolutely exhausting to be criticized by groups that have no idea what is going on in the school,” Turner said, “to have to talk to police about the safety of a teacher [targeted] on a website.”
But these educators and students keep plugging away, heroically.
“What energizes us is that our students and faculty and most of our families are largely in support of the work we are doing as a school,” he said.
No school gets everything right, but Newton North gives the lie to claims by Parents Defending Education and other conservative groups that making everyone feel welcome comes at the expense of academics. The school excels on MCAS tests, has seen increasing participation in honors and AP courses by Black and Hispanic students, and enjoys super college acceptance rates – even as Newton North has continued to emphasize diversity and inclusion.
Then again, so much of what these groups claim about schools they don’t like is false. But what does truth matter – or the pain felt by those they hate – when there are votes at stake?