FUHSD officials, teachers and students explain the process of opting out of school curriculum as well as their thoughts on it
A recent issue with author Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” in which a student wanted to opt out of reading the book due to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters, has prompted members of the Fremont Education Association (FEA) union to begin conversations with district administrators and school board members about the existing policy. Opting out refers to the process where students, with guidance from their parents or legal guardians, choose not to participate in a particular school activity or lesson for ideological, religious or other personal reasons.
At FUHSD, opt-out requests are not commonplace. Superintendent Polly Bove says that out of 11,000 high schoolers across the district, “very few” individuals choose to be exempt from a particular activity. When issues of opting out or differences in ideological and religious beliefs do arise, the district follows a specific protocol to maximize efficiency and promote communication between all parties involved.
First, parents or guardians submit a written request detailing why they want their child to be exempt from an assignment or activity. The school principal and teacher then review the appeal and invite the student’s parents to a formal discussion on the request. This involves both parties explaining their perspectives, why the text was selected and the benefits of engaging with it, as well as why the assignment conflicts with their beliefs. Only after this consideration is an action determined. In the case of this year’s opt out request, the student was provided an alternative text to read.
“Each [opt-out request] gets handled individually and carefully, and there’s always a discussion associated with it, which includes wanting to deeply understand why the request is being made,” Bove said. “We ask parents, ‘What’s the problem that’s troubling you? What’s the issue?’ And then we listen. We hear what the reasoning is and what the thoughts are.”
Whether or not the student is excused from the assignment depends on the nature of their opt-out request. According to California Safe Schools Coalition, students can opt out of comprehensive sexual health education, HIV/AIDS prevention education, and surveys, tests, research and evaluation. However, the FUHSD board policy AR 6161.1, which was last updated in 2004, allows for a wider range of opt outs.
The Board policy states, “Upon written request of a parent/guardian, a student shall be excused from an assignment dealing with basic instructional materials (e.g., core literature selection) when the assignment conflicts with religion, beliefs, or personal moral conviction or because of extenuating circumstances, is deemed necessary by the principal. When a student is excused from the assignment, the teacher will give an alternate assignment with no adverse effect on the grade.”
According to MVHS site president for FEA and social studies department chair Bonnie Belshe, opt outs present two major concerns for educators. Not only does the current opt-out policy impart more work upon teachers by requiring them to create an alternative curriculum, it also takes away from the student’s understanding of the world, specifically pertaining to race, gender and sexuality issues.
“It is concerning to see opt outs for [an LGBTQ+ friendly book like “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”], because we think our role particularly here at a public school is to take a larger look at our society and culture and opening up to ideas within that,” Belshe said.
Belshe says she’s relieved that parents can’t opt their child out of LGBTQ curriculum in their social sciences classes because of Ed Code 51204.5, which states: “Instruction in social sciences shall include the early history of California and a study of the role and contributions of both men and women, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups, to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.”
“I think that one of the great things with public education — and this has been fought for very hard in public education — is this interaction of students, of people together, of meeting and working with others who just aren’t like you,” Belshe said.
In part due to the opt out incident, Belshe is working on a year long project, called Equity in Action, to celebrate LGBTQ+ history at both the school and district level. Her project consists of three components — the examination of LGBTQ+ representation in core texts, short stories and poems; the incorporation of LGBTQ+ history in history classes; and the exploration of the school and district’s policies and practices on LGBTQ+ students.
Like Belshe, English teacher Kate Evard feels contempt towards opting out of any kind, especially when the cited reason for the request is religious concern. To Evard, allowing students to opt out because of religious differences is a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits excessive entanglement between religion and government.
Reading and learning about different people is going to make students’ lives more enjoyable and more pleasant. To be exposed to situations that are different and uncomfortable is a good thing. No one ever said life’s comfortable.”
— Kate Evard
“Reading and learning about different people is going to make students’ lives more enjoyable and more pleasant,” Evard said. “To be exposed to situations that are different and uncomfortable is a good thing. No one ever said life’s comfortable. So I ask, why does [learning about different things] make you uncomfortable?”
Additionally the books that get chosen for students aren’t necessarily aligned with what’s being taught in the student’s history class but rather books that convey the core lesson. Assistant superintendent Tom Avvakumovits says that the books chosen are ultimately decided by a group of teachers on the basis of the core lesson. Therefore, for literature, the ultimate lesson isn’t bound to the book but instead, the book serves as a vehicle.
“So let’s say the learning outcome would be to be able to write an interpretive essay around the theme of identity,” Avvakumovits said. “So there’s a number of different literature that can help understand tracing a character as they evolve through the story, the narrative, where students can identify with the changes the impacts the growth of that character, the rise and fall and they’re going to have to do some literary analysis and make some comparisons and then make an argument, and that could be done through a variety of different ways.”
Senior Nathan Lee disagrees, explaining the so-called vehicle for a lesson, whether that be a novel dealing with controversial topics or an activity exploring different genders and sexualities, is just as important as the lesson itself.
If you’re not exposed to different types of people, different types of love, different types, just basically people who are different from you, you’re missing out on a huge part of what’s going to make the world so great in the future.”
— Nathan Lee
“I think a lot of the times it’s the parents who pull the kids out of the class to have them not be exposed to the curriculum, but honestly, I think it’s kind of sad because we’re living in a world that’s increasing in diversity,” Lee said. “And if you’re not exposed to different types of people, different types of love, different types, just basically people who are different from you, you’re missing out on a huge part of what’s going to make the world so great in the future.”
In the context of literature specifically, Lee notes that many famous novels are written solely by cis white straight men, a demographic that represents a very narrow set of life experiences. To adapt to the increasingly diverse world in which individuals live, Lee urges students to seek out books written by diverse authors showcasing various experiences.
“The truth is that books can really alter our view of the world,” Lee said. “If you’re constantly reading about people who are white, people who are straight, people who are cis, you’re going to get a very narrow view of the world and you’re not going to be exposed to the real diversity of human life.”
In addition to her concern that opt-outs deny individuals critical learning opportunities, Evard says that the current FUHSD policy is unfair to teachers who have to provide an alternative curriculum for the student.
“I don’t think it’s fair to the teacher for a number of reasons,” Evard said. “It’s a lot of extra work, that they’re not getting paid for. The other is that, that teacher is then somewhat forced to condone the offering up because it’s like, ‘Okay, well, it’s okay with me because I have to provide all right, because I’m providing this other material.’ I don’t think all teachers are comfortable taking that position. And I know that I wouldn’t be if I could. Well, I would refuse to do that to provide an alternative lesson for because my own principles, my own issues with the reasoning for opting out.”
Regarding the added workload, Bove as well as the FUHSD teacher’s union have attempted to lessen the load on teachers by having students who opt out receive the same common summative assignment, but just complete it using a different text. However, Bove explains that the experience for the kid who is opting out is different, and a lesser experience that engaging in rich class discussions.
While currently, literature is not considered factual information and can be opted out of, the number of opt outs in one year is very miniscule. Additionally to even opt out of a book the reasoning must be reasonable as well as fall under the aforementioned guidelines. For Bove, the limited amount of opt outs stands as a testament for students showing inclusivity and challenging their beliefs.
“I don’t think you change minds and hearts by being intolerant or mandating people do things not well received, often demanding it. So I think you change minds and hearts by listening and talking and sharing different views, and that will happen if we can be accepting,” Bove said. “And again, like I said, it’s always been very moving to me in some way. We have these requests so infrequently it must mean that we have people that are really willing to test the boundaries of their beliefs and their thinking and I think that’s wonderful.”