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Originally published March 8, 2013 at 1:22 PM | Page modified March 8, 2013 at 10:03 PM

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Controversial class on race to resume — with changes

The superintendent of Seattle Public Schools announced Friday that a recently suspended unit in a humanities class at The Center School that explored issues of race and privilege will be allowed to resume, with restrictions.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Seattle high-school teacher at the center of a controversy over how he was teaching about race at The Center School defended his approach Friday, saying students could handle the frank and necessary discussions.

Seattle Public Schools Superintendent José Banda announced Friday that the district will resume the popular unit, part of a humanities course for seniors. The unit was suspended in January after a single student complained in December that the way it was taught was upsetting.

The teacher, Jon Greenberg, said he was using a modified version of the so-called “Courageous Conversations” format, which included inviting visitors into the classroom to talk candidly about what it’s like to be a minority in America.

On Mondays, he would invite students to talk about what they had experienced over the weekend that made them think about race. If they chose, the students could also offer their own personal stories about race.

But after one student complained that the way the class was taught created an intimidating environment, the district suspended the unit pending an investigation.

On Friday, Banda praised the value of the unit and reinstated it, but with several conditions, including eliminating the Courageous Conversations approach, saying it is appropriate for adults but not for students.

The district has used the Courageous Conversations method in training teachers and staff about cultural competency.

In reinstating the unit, Banda also said parents need to be told ahead of time if a classroom activity could cause “a high degree of emotion for students or potential distress.”

Greenberg said Friday that he agrees with much of Banda’s decision, including providing alternative instruction for any student who wants it and involving parents.

But he disagrees with shutting a unit down on the basis of one student’s complaint — before the situation was even investigated.

The Center School is a small, public high school with 300 students on the Seattle Center campus. A so-called option school, students can apply to attend it rather than their neighborhood schools.

Greenberg said he is convinced his students can handle frank conversations about race. “Most of them are 18; they can go to war, but they can’t handle this?” Greenberg said. “They handle it better than the district personnel.

“One family’s complaint should not have led to all this. None of us should feel comfortable with what happened. This isn’t over.”

Shauna Heath, executive director of curriculum and instruction for the district, defended the district’s decision. “We believe in these kinds of conversations,” Heath said. “It is just the manner in which they are taught that needs to be inclusive of all children and not intimidating.”

Some students have already taken up the cause, using social media to turn out supporters at a School Board meeting Wednesday and launching an online petition defending the unit.

“To me, it was life changing,” student Emma Sadinsky, 18, said on Friday. “The section that was taken away, I personally feel was incredibly important. Some people don’t think racism exists in Seattle; it is really hard to see things you yourself do that you don’t realize is racism.

“Some of these conversations were impassioned because people were saying things they had held in for a long time, but it was never hostile,” she said.

A student of mixed race said she was able for the first time to talk about jokes that made her uncomfortable. A black student said he was able to talk about going into stores and feeling like he was being looked at differently than the other customers.

“To be honest, I was proud to be able to tell my classmates what I have to deal with, to put it out there,” said Yasab Psister, 18.

Gerardine Carroll, who teaches ninth- and 10th-grade humanities at the school, said the value of the conversations was in taking instruction about race out of theory and into the real world.

“Those conversations are difficult, they are hard; these issues are uncomfortable and a nice little city like Seattle doesn’t like that,” Carroll said. “It’s the whole idea of institutional racism, and it needs to be addressed, but now there is a chilling effect.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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