In case you hadn't heard, a Bay Area school district has been the subject of some national conservative outrage over federal money that it spent on a program that is somewhat misleadingly named Woke Kindergarten.
Just say the word "woke" in the presence of certain red-state voters and you are bound to receive the parroted wrath of a thousand Fox News pundits in return. And that is because the word, once just associated with enlightened thinking about longstanding oppression, has become loaded beyond all rational measure. "Woke" in the minds of many Trump voters is equivalent with "antifa" or any other number of terms that have been demonized and associated with evil liberals, in this case because it connotes indoctrination of kids and teens into progressive thinking — which itself has been conflated with pedophile, somehow, don't ask.
But the culture-war debates have creeped into blue-state school districts, which is exactly how Republican strategists want it. And we've seen it recently with a dustup over a Pride flag in the tiny Sunol Glen Unified School District.
The latest is in nearby Hayward, where at least one school board member and one teacher have waded into the Fox News outrage pool and brought some unwanted negative attention to the Hayward Unified School District.
Glassbrook Elementary, a school with poor attendance rates and even poorer test scores, has been the site of training sessions by Woke Kindergarten — a for-profit program that focuses on "abolitionist," anti-racist education for elementary students, not kindergartners, though its origins are in early-childhood education.
The district is two years into a three-year, $250,000 contract with Woke Kindergarten, and in late January, school board trustee Joe Ramos sparked controversy by suggesting the district had "blown" this money at a school where test scores continued to decline, as the Daily Mail reported.
Ramos also, troublingly, told the assembled people at the school board meeting, "Some of what you said today is alarming to me. Some of these parents here, they should take a rope and string you up." This was in an exchange with Sandra Escobedo, director of supplemental and concentration services, who was fielding questions about the district's budget.
This was followed by a February 3 Chronicle piece, in which a teacher at Glassbrook sought to blow up the issue further, expressing his concern with the Woke Kindergarten program.
Teacher Tiger Craven-Neeley, a self-described "gay moderate," questioned some of the tenets of the Woke Kindergarten curriculum, which include "disrupting whiteness."
"What does that mean?” Craven-Neeley asks. “I just want to know, what does that mean for a third-grade classroom?”
Craven-Neeley said he posed this question to one of the Woke Kindergarten trainers, and this got him banned from attending future training sessions. He says he also questioned the trainer's use of the phrase, "the so-called United States."
Craven-Neeley, echoing Ramos, the school board member, questioned whether this program was a wise expenditure given that the students — who are 80% Hispanic/Latinx, and two thirds are English learners — are so behind other kids their age in reading proficiency, not to mention math. Only 12% are currently reading English at grade level, he said.
Now, as the Chronicle reports today, Craven-Neeley was put on administrative leave as of Thursday, and was told to turn in his keys. Administrators said this was over "allegations of unprofessional conduct," and it seems pretty obviously linked to Craven-Neeley deciding to speak out to the Chronicle.
A district spokesperson, Michael Bazeley, told the Chronicle that the news coverage, which prompted a wave of negative coverage in the right-wing press, brought with it dozens of "threatening and racist" messages aimed at other teachers and administrators.
"I don’t think any teacher or staff member wakes up expecting to be dragged through the mud of the national media," Bazeley tells the paper. "They’ve been very resilient, but it has taken its toll."
The district has defended the addition of the "Woke" curriculum, saying they hoped it would help boost attendance, at least — with 44% of students considered chronically absent last year.
"We need to try something else,” says bilingual kindergarten teacher Christina Aguilera, speaking to the Chronicle. "If we just focus on academics, it’s not working. There is no one magic pill that will raise test scores... We didn’t just do what everybody expected us to do, and I’m really proud of that.”
And sixth-grade teacher Michele Mason also defended the Woke Kindergarten trainings to the Chronicle, calling them "a positive experience” for most of the staff.
The right-wing media has also seized on the founder of Woke Kindergarten — whose website is a bit spartan, but refers to things like "lil comrades," and "teach[ing] Palestine." Their name is Akiea "Ki" Gross (they/them), and Gross is a Black former kindergarten teacher residing in Brooklyn who says the program is focused on "supporting children, families, educators and organizations in their commitment to abolitionist early education and pro-black and queer and trans liberation."