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Superior board votes to retain gender identity curriculum for fifth graders

The decision followed an hour and a half of public comment.

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Residents gather in the Superior Middle School cafeteria for a special School Board meeting Thursday, Aug. 25, addressing a gender identity unit taught to fifth grade students as part of the human growth and development curriculum.
Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram
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SUPERIOR — A contested gender identity unit will remain part of the fifth grade human growth and development curriculum following a split vote of the School Board during special meeting Thursday, Aug. 25.

Board President Len Albrecht and board members Steve Olson, Mike Meyer, Laura Gapske and Brooke Taylor voted to uphold District Administrator Amy Starzecki’s decision to retain the roughly 30-minute unit in the curriculum.

Board members Steve Stupak and Ed Gallagher voted against the decision, saying gender identity curriculum should not be taught until middle school.

Olson said in his 40 years as an educator and three years as a School Board member, it was the toughest decision he had encountered.

“I don’t feel that this is indoctrination. I personally feel that it is education. We are teaching our students how to accept one another. We are teaching our children to respect and I really appreciate the word 'love,'” Olson said, using a word a number of speakers used. “I trust the fact that the educational people that have made this decision are more than highly qualified to do that … I am in complete support of keeping the curriculum as is.”

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Parents at five elementary schools have complained about curriculum being taught to fifth grade students.

Gallagher said whether it’s one person or 30 people making a complaint, every community member has that right to have their complaint go to the board. He said he would prefer the district follow state standards for human growth and development curriculum, which require gender identity to be introduced by eighth grade, instead of the national standards.

Gapske disagreed.

“When we say 'all means all,' no matter what our personal beliefs are, that is what our school district has adopted as a strategic plan,” she said. “We don’t need to set the bar lower. I am proud of our curriculum staff and our teachers for looking for higher standards, because that’s what we should be holding ourselves to.”

Taylor said she agreed the curriculum should stay in fifth grade, but asked if the letter about the curriculum, with the opt-out option, could be sent to parents at the time of registration as well as before the unit is taught. It would, she said, add an extra layer of transparency.

The evening ended with a roll call vote.

“This is a very, very tough decision, but it’s one that has to be made,” Albrecht said.

A complaint about the new curriculum was lodged by parents at five of the district’s elementary schools this spring. Starzecki upheld a curriculum review committee recommendation to continue teaching the fifth grade unit. Her decision was appealed by the complainants, who requested a School Board review of the issue.

Thursday's vote followed presentations by the complainants and the district, as well as more than an hour and a half of public comment by teachers, students and residents. Those in favor of the curriculum referenced the increased rates of attempted suicide and depression in LGBTQ students, pointed out the curriculum was based on national standards and said it supports inclusion and acceptance for all.

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“It is proven study that kids who are educated about gender identity and pronouns are three times more prepared to help a friend from being bullied for their gender or their identity,” said Dominic Chilko, a transgender man.

Removing instruction of gender identity will not stop students from learning about it, said Eliza Wilson, a lifelong Superior resident. When she was in school, no teachers were talking about what it means to be transgender.

“We learned about it from our peers, when peers would make jokes and talk about trans people as monsters and learned that being trans is something to be ashamed of,” Wilson said.

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Eliza Wilson, of Superior, speaks to the Superior School Board during a special meeting Thursday, Aug. 25, on a gender identity unit taught to fifth graders in the district. Wilson said if students don't get explicit information from teachers on gender identity, they will learn about it from each other through jokes and comments.
Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram

“I was taught in college that education should provide windows and mirrors for our students, allowing them to see themselves and also to view new perspectives through their learning," said Rachael Holden-Kaufman, a Superior High School English teacher and adviser for the school's Gay-Straight Alliance. "Realizing that you are not alone, seeing where you fit and having your identity validated is life saving."

Lee Sandok Baker, a parent of a fifth grader, said we encounter people in daily life with a variety of gender identities.

“Providing this curriculum in our schools to our fifth graders creates a kind of a soft starting point for these important conversations we need to be having with our kids. It’s about how they treat themselves and it's about how they treat others,” Sandok Baker said.

Those asking to remove the curriculum from fifth grade questioned if it was age appropriate and whether it was based in science or ideology. They also claimed it was one-sided and expressed concerns over district transparency about the curriculum, which was first introduced this spring.

“A lot of people are not on board with this,” said Travis Hanson, a father of four.

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One of the parents who signed the original curriculum complaint, Anna Calore, said there was a lot of misinformation circulating about their motives. The complaint was not about a political or religious agenda, she said, just “real families with real concerns.”

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Anna Calore, of Superior, speaks to the Superior School Board during a special meeting Thursday, Aug. 25, in the Superior Middle School cafeteria to address parent concerns about gender identity curriculum being taught to fifth grade students. Calore said parents who complained about the curriculum believed there was a lack of transparency about the unit, which was first taught last spring.
Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram

“It is not an effort to marginalize a group of students. We love all students and believe all should be supported. We believe this can be accomplished without this curriculum,” Calore said.

At its root, she said, it was about what parents believed was a lack of transparency about the new gender identity unit.

“To many families, this lack of transparency felt like an intentional way to hide curriculum that the district knew would be concerning for many families, especially when in the years prior all human growth material is provided to families up front,” Calore said.

The complaint was not an attempt to take gender identity curriculum out of the schools, said Janette Gil de Lamadrid.

“That’s not true; just out of the elementary school so then kids have a chance to mature, to be able to question …” she said. “There are still real issues that can be still addressed by teachers. Kids can still be taught to be kind, that we’re all different.”

Superior students spoke about the need for the curriculum.

Gregory, a 13-year-old who asked that his last name not be used, said the gender identity curriculum would have been very helpful to him as a fifth grader, a time when he was very stressed about his identity.

“If I had been taught about this when I was younger, I would not have felt like it was so wrong for me to be who I am, because of, you know, who I am,” Gregory said.

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Kennedy Popplewell, a Superior High School sophomore, addresses the Superior School Board on Thursday, Aug. 25. Popplewell, who identifies as queer, spoke in favor of keeping the curriculum at the fifth grade level.
Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram

Kennedy Popplewell, a sophomore at SHS, shared their personal experiences growing up in the district.

“I’ve been picked on since I was a little girl. I’ve been harassed, bullied, stared at and argued with due to the way that I presented myself,” Popplewell said.

School is an especially difficult place for the 15-year-old, they said.

“Every year, I have to constantly worry about if my teachers will accept me for who I am, especially substitute teachers,” Popplewell said.

The hate the teen has experienced has increased their mental health problems and suicidal thoughts. Parents have the ability to opt their child out of the 30-minute unit, Popplewell said.

“So why should we take this lesson away? Why should we take this education away? Why should we keep these students who want to express themselves hidden in a closet? Why should we do that? There’s no point,” Popplewell said.

A caption for a photo included with this story was updated at 1:05 p.m. Sept. 6 to reflect how Kennedy Popplewell identifies themself. It was originally posted at 10:48 a.m. Aug. 29. The Telegram regrets the error.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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