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Interview: McNeill On WCSD Social Justice Curriculum Task Force

WCSD Superintendent Kristen McNeill is sitting next to Board President Angie Taylor behind a folding table with a black table cloth. Both are looking down as McNeill reads prepared remarks.
Paul Boger
Superintendent Kristen McNeill (right) recommended the Washoe County School Board create a task force to review the social justice curriculum.

Washoe County schools will soon form a task force to evaluate the district’s potential K-5 grade social justice curriculum. The group will examine teaching materials on topics such as racism and equality. KUNR’s Paul Boger spoke with Washoe County School District Superintendent Kristen McNeill to learn more.

Paul Boger: Dr. McNeill, the board voted to create a task force aimed at reviewing portions of the district's potential curriculum from Benchmark. What are you wanting this group to do specifically?

Kristen McNeill: So, really, it’s around the supplemental materials, which is that we actually develop a task force, which we’ve done before. We develop a task force with students, with our parents in the district, with teachers, with principals, with curriculum specialists, and let’s take a look at the supplementary materials. There’s questions in there, but we want to make sure that the supplemental materials — those questions — fit what’s going on in our school community. It may not be the same thing that’s happening in a district across the country, or even, you know, a couple of states away from us. We want to make sure that it fits the context of what’s happening here in Washoe County.

Boger: And what does that mean? 

McNeill: So we’re going to be talking about, you know, let’s talk about civil discourse. Let’s talk about civics. What does it mean to be a good citizen? What does it mean to be able to volunteer? What does it mean to have laws? What are some good laws? What aren’t some good laws? And let’s have those questions. Let’s talk about that. What does that look like?

Boger: Before we get much further down the road, I think it is important to talk about the differences between curriculum and standards because I think people use those terms interchangeably.

McNeill: Standards are the “what do I need to teach?” And so, we have Nevada Academic Content Standards, which are adopted at the state level. And then the curriculum is the “how am I going to teach these standards?” And whether it’s in math, whether it’s in science, whether it’s in social studies, there are standards within each one of our core requirements, and our curriculum is adopted through a process, a very public process.

Whether it’s a textbook, whether it’s an online-type program, there’s a very public process. We have to go through the state first. So, there is a list [of possible curriculum creators] that we can go to at the state level. And then we take a look at that, and then we select a vendor or something off of the state site. And then that goes through a very public process through our school district. And then the final step is the adoption by the board of trustees. So this is nothing new for our school district.

We’ve had these standards in place from the Nevada Academic Content Standards, they were actually adopted a couple of years ago, and then the pandemic hit. So, we’re trying to actually catch up and make sure that our teachers have relevant and rigorous curriculum in place, but in order to do that, we want to make sure that we’re doing it right and that they feel prepared.

Boger: In that same vein, we heard time and again, during the public comment portion of the meeting, a backlash against the social justice movement. In particular, we heard outspoken criticism of something called critical race theory, which has become a controversial phrase over the last few years. Are these Benchmark materials based on CRT at all?

McNeill: The Benchmark series is not. The supplemental materials are not based on critical race theory, and they are not based on the 1619 [Project]. You know, a couple of weeks ago, we actually met with the Benchmark higher-ups, their executive team, because we wanted to talk about that: Where do [they] get these curriculum materials? And they do their research, and it is not based on critical race theory, CRT, or the 1619 program.

Our curriculum needs to be built around what’s right for our community. Critical race theory is not something that you can get out a book and teach. It is a research construct, and I think there is a lot of misinformation that it talks about white privilege, and it talks about making other students feel bad about themselves or oppressed, and that has nothing to do with what we’re teaching in our schools. I think there’s just a lot, unfortunately, of misinformation out there.

Boger: Ultimately, why do you think it’s important to incorporate these materials into a student’s learning? You know, what do you want parents to take away from all of this?

McNeill: Our students are growing up in a global economy, and we want to make sure that our students are equipped when they go out there, when they cross that stage. And as they progress through their educational journey, that they have the capabilities to converse, to have civil discourse, to make critical decisions and to actually be able to critically think, “how am I going to solve this problem?”

Paul Boger is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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