Staff Appointed, Racial Literacy Discussed by BOE

For The Leader/Times

WESTFIELD — At a special meeting of the Westfield Board of Education last Friday morning, the board appointed LaNova Schall as the new assistant principal of Edison Intermediate School effective Sunday, August 1. Ms. Schall was chosen from among more than 150 applicants and seven interview candidates for the position, according to a district press release. She will replace Crystal Marsh, who will become the new principal of Wilson Elementary School.

Ms. Schall began her education career in the New York City Public Schools in 2001 before moving to East Orange Community Charter School in 2009. There, she served as supervisor of curriculum, instruction and data before becoming an assistant principal at Van Derveer Elementary school in Somerville.

After receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Penn State University, Ms. Schall continued her education, earning her Master of Science in Teaching from Fordham, an Educational Leadership Certificate from the NJEXCEL program, and a supervisor’s certificate from Seton Hall University.

“I am ecstatic and truly humbled to be joining the Westfield Schools as Edison’s new assistant principal,” Ms. Schall told the board. She continued, “Your commitment to academic excellence, racial literacy and social emotional learning are what actually attracted me to the district.” Ms. Schall said she is excited to join the administrative team and continue bringing high-quality education to the district.

Racial literacy became a topic of discussion later in the meeting, regarding a book read to kindergarten students. The book, “Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race,” by Megan Madison, Jessica Ralli and Isabel Roxas, was part of a larger lesson that included looking at varying shades of oranges and peeling them to see the inside. Parents were sent a permission slip with the book’s title and activity, according to Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Paul Piniero. Mr. Piniero said there was at least one parent who “had an ongoing conversation” about the lesson at the school level.

According to Board President Amy Root, the issue about the book’s content came to the board’s attention “a little after midnight.” “For us to fully research and figure out exactly who, what, and when would be a little hard to be done before 8:30 this morning,” said Ms. Root, and board members were continuing to educate themselves on the evolving situation.

The book starts by recognizing the variety of skin tones and asking children questions like, “What do you like about your skin?” It also introduces various forms of racism: “Racism can be on purpose, like calling a person of color a mean name because of their skin color. Racism can be by mistake, like if the same friend always has to play the bad guy.”

Parents objected to some of the text of the book, referring to its allusion to critical race theory. The book says, “A long time ago, way before you were born, a group of white people made up an idea called race.” There also is a page in the book that says, “Racism is also the things people do and the unfair rules they make about race so that white people get more power, and are treated better, than anyone else.”

Mr. Piniero said it was important for parents to understand the book was a part of a larger lesson, and to not take pieces out of context. He also acknowledged that parent concerns regarding the text of the book are valid. Peeling the oranges to see they are the same on the inside was a significant part of the lesson, said Mr. Piniero.

Board members and administrators alike commented on racial literacy being part of New Jersey curriculum, and made the distinction critical race theory is not. “Critical race theory is a framework. Racial literacy is something we are educating ourselves on, our teachers, our parents,” said Mr. Piniero, noting the district offered summer forums for the community and professional development for the staff.

“We are doing our best and getting the training we need,” said Mr. Piniero. He added that there is more the district can do to continue its efforts. One such task, Mr. Piniero said, is to look more closely at the text in question and review the district’s list of racial literacy titles, along with ongoing and transparent conversations with the community.

“Our job as a district is to talk about racial literacy,” said board member Leila Morelli, adding that it is important to expose students to “many sides of every debate.”

Ms. Root said the board has publicly discussed the importance of a “curated experience” in a class that is led by teachers who are trained and have thoughtful materials and lessons and comments to help guide the students.”

The next scheduled board of education meeting will be held on Tuesday, August 31, and is planned to be in person.

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