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Originally published March 7, 2013 at 8:10 PM | Page modified March 8, 2013 at 1:19 PM

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Decision nears on reinstating suspended high-school course on race

A Seattle school official will decide in a week whether to resume a popular class at The Center School that explored issues related to race. The district suspended the class after a student complained that the way it was taught created an intimidating environment.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Seattle school officials will decide in a week whether to reinstate a popular humanities course at The Center School that explored issues of race and privilege after taking the unusual step of suspending it a few weeks ago.

The district’s action followed a December complaint by a student who said the way the class was taught created an intimidating environment.

The six-week unit of study was part of a broader class on citizenship and social justice required for all seniors at the small, alternative, arts-focused high school on the grounds of Seattle Center.

Seattle school district officials abruptly halted the segment just as teacher Jon Greenberg was wrapping it up two weeks ago. After the student complained, the district began an investigation it said corroborated the student’s concerns.

Calling it a personnel matter, the district would not provide further details of the complaint.

The class already had completed a unit on poverty and was preparing to begin another on gender. That’s on hold until the district issues a final determination next Thursday.

In the meantime, students are completing senior projects and learning about early state government, senior student Zak Meyer said.

“I think we were all shocked,” he said, recalling the day Greenberg told the 50 or so students they could no longer have these conversations about race.

“Our response was dramatic. We started holding lunch meetings about how to get this class back. That was one of the things that he (Greenberg) taught us, about how to advocate in the community.”

The students created an online petition to get the district to reinstate the segment.

And through a Facebook page, they organized attendance at a crowded Wednesday night Seattle School Board meeting, where they spoke passionately about the importance of the course.

Meyer said the frank classroom discussions about race, while stirring uncomfortable feelings, forced a level of self-examination he had never before explored.

Growing up in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle, he said, he had little interaction with those of other races and ethnic backgrounds.

But Greenberg’s class, he said, opened his eyes to the experiences of others and “forced me to take an inner look at myself and examine how I lived compared to others and how I always thought race played only a small role in my life.”

In a statement, district officials said they believe issues around race and social justice are important conversations for students and staff, and should be taught in their schools.

But they say this dispute is not about social justice.

“We don’t want to put any child into a situation where he or she feels so intimidated by the manner in which these issues are taught that the course is no longer effective,” the statement said.

The December complaint by the student was filed not long after the segment on race began.

In response, the district’s human-resources department investigated and found that “the way the race unit was taught did create an intimidating educational environment for a student.”

The district formed a committee that included Principal Oksana Britsova,district employees and a parent to review class materials and conduct interviews to reach a recommendation submitted to Shauna Heath, the district’s executive director for curriculum and instruction.

The committee, Heath said, “pulled enough information that involved material and testimony to reach a thoughtful recommendation around what should be done to make sure we don’t have an intimidating environment.”

Her decision, in this case, is final.

Seattle Public Schools opened The Center School in 2001 as an alternative public high school with a focus on the arts and on community engagement.

It draws its 300 students from throughout the school district.

In addition to historical works the class studied, Meyer said Greenberg brought in speakers of different backgrounds — Native Americans and Latin Americans, people of mixed race — to talk about their individual life experiences.

Students of color in the class — “I can count the number on one hand,” Meyer said — were encouraged to also share their personal experiences.

“Here we are listening to our fellow classmates talk about the problems they are having. We realize these are our friends and we had no idea what they were going through,” he said.

Meyer said he was never uncomfortable with how the class was taught, the basis of the complaint and probe by the district.

“We were encouraged to share our opinions. You might not agree with everything you hear ... not everyone agrees ... but we were all close enough that no one would get angry with you if you disagreed.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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