Corrected and updated July 7, 2020, at 3:45 p.m.
Alumni of the Harvard public school system are advocating for changes to the schools’ curriculums and practices in an open letter that has been signed by over 600 current and former members of the Harvard public school community. The letter has been welcomed by school administrators and School Committee members who say a number of its recommendations have already been implemented, while agreeing there is more to be done.
The letter was published as a Google Doc on June 21 and its link shared on various social media platforms, including Facebook, Nextdoor, and Instagram. It was addressed to School Superintendent Linda Dwight, the principals and associate principals of the Bromfield and Hildreth Elementary schools, and members of the School Committee. “Many forms of discrimination remain pervasive and destructive realities in our country, and they contradict the values we strive for in the Harvard community,” it begins, and it calls on that community to join together to promote social justice.
With a growing number of signatures and a section for public comment, the document continues to evolve, but according to one of its authors, a member of the Bromfield Class of 2015, its creators do not wish to be seen as responsible for its newer content. The alumna agreed to speak with the Press about the origin of the letter but asked to remain anonymous so as not to be seen as a leader of the group.
She said the drafting of the letter began about three weeks ago and included meetings with various town leaders such as individuals from Arm in Arm’s steering committee and the Harvard Police Department.
A more diverse curriculum
The letter calls for four categories of action on the part of the Harvard school community: educate, diversify, update, and review and revise. The letter includes a reference section for further research.
Alumni have proposed adding units on structural racism and white supremacy; offering electives that focus on ethnicity, race, and migration; auditing material to incorporate and amplify the voices of people of color; promoting conversations about diversity issues; redesigning the schools’ mission statement and core values; developing a diversity curriculum for staff; and eventually working to diversify the staff to better represent the country’s demographic. The alumni also recommended that a diversity consultant be hired to help implement their recommendations.
The 2015 graduate interviewed for this report said she and the letter’s authors wanted the recommended actions to be “tangible enough that they could be acted upon” but not so specific as to be seen as mandates. The alumni studied similar letters from other schools and universities to get ideas but said that what they ended up with was uniquely crafted to speak to the Harvard community. One of the distinctions the alumni made in their own letter was a recognition of the work and organizations that are already in place to address social justice issues in Harvard.
Following publication, the alumni added an authors’ note recognizing that the suggestions in the letter do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of the Harvard community as a whole and have been compiled by a relatively small group of alumni.
Addressing root causes
Hannah Payne, an alumna from the Bromfield Class of 2007, was one of the first to post a comment. In her post, she called for a broad, communitywide plan for social justice, writing: “I agree with the intention of this letter, but feel that it is important to add that teaching about racial equity in a school that actively participates in a system fueled by white supremacy does not address the root causes of the issue. In my experience it was not the lack of education about these topics that was jarring when entering adulthood but the realization of just how segregated and privileged my childhood in Harvard was.”
Payne is now a city planner for the city of Somerville and says that she is always looking at “big structural systems.” She said in an interview that she supports updating the school curriculum, but doesn’t think the movement should stop there. “I think I had a fairly progressive education in Harvard. It certainly wasn’t perfect and there was a lot of room for improvement especially around issues of racial justice.” She added that she thinks there has likely been a positive shift toward greater awareness and discussion since she graduated. “But I think that it’s important to reflect on ... the broader community at this time, too, and how you learn, not just from school, but also the community that you are in.”
She called for greater reflection from her fellow Bromfield alumni. “One thing that I want to come out of this is … more awareness and recognition of how we, particularly how white alumni from the Harvard public schools, benefitted from a system … where we were able to access quality public schools while our peers in lesser-funded communities in Massachusetts did not have the same kind of experience.”
Biased measures of success?
Stacey Fair is an alumna from the Bromfield Class of 2013 and is now a middle school science teacher at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens. She said that as people of color growing up in Harvard and attending its public schools, she and her sisters were very aware of the curriculum’s lack of diversity. Today, she recognizes that the curriculum is a result of a larger system that fails to amplify Black and brown voices. She said in an interview that the Bromfield School makes choices about their classes and curriculum based on what other schools are doing and what will best prepare students for tests like the SAT and ACT that she said are “biased measures of success and achievement.”
Fair has concerns about the letter’s call for a multiday, all-staff training event, which she feels might give people a false sense that they have done enough. “This is ongoing work that you have to keep working at your entire life. It’s not something that you can just learn during a few days of professional development.”
Letting go of top-school status
If the Harvard community is committed to diversifying their schools’ curriculums, Fair believes it also has to be prepared to let go of its status as one of Massachusetts’ top school systems. “If we really do this work well, our ranking is going to go down and I think it’s very important that we do it but we shouldn't be surprised when it happens because every measure of success that we have as educators is biased towards white students.”
Schools across the country are ranked by sites like U.S. News & World Report and Niche.com, based on grades, rigor, graduation rates, and how well students perform on standardized tests. Fair noted that in the comment section of their letter, alumni have called for English classes to read more books by people of color. She said that this may mean lower test scores. “AP tests are biased towards books by white, English, and American men,” she said.
Until recently, a long-outdated version of Bromfield’s Advanced Placement (AP) English literature and composition curriculum remained on the school’s website and was used to inform an earlier version of this story. That curriculum suggests that Harvard may have once been an example of this type of Eurocentrism, but recent efforts to create a more diverse curriculum have changed the story. Jessica Hyde, who teaches this course, reached out to the Press to explain that she has been working over the past seven years to update the material studied in the class. Today, her course reflects a more modern world view.
Hyde said that when she first started teaching the class in 2011, she inherited a curriculum based, primarily, on the study of British literature. As she became more familiar with the course, she began to recognize the need for more diverse materials. “I felt it was time to make some changes—I recognized that more minority voices needed to be included in the curriculum,” Hyde wrote in an email to the Press.
She began to diversify the material studied in the course by adding a unit on short stories. She said the unit lasted six weeks and exposed students to about 30 different authors. Some of the authors Hyde said students read during the short story unit are: James Baldwin, a Black American essayist, author, and playwright who wrote extensively on the topic of race in America; Ralph Waldo Ellison, a Black American author and recipient of the National Book Award for his novel “The Invisible Man”; and the New York Times bestselling author Amy Tan, a Chinese American writer whose work addresses culturally aware topics including the immigrant experience in America.
Since updating the curriculum, Hyde said she has seen little change in how students score on the AP exam and that she has continued to see students performing well on the test.
U.S. News & World Report ranks schools based on six factors. The most heavily weighted factor is what they call a College Readiness Index that accounts for 30% of a school’s score. The College Readiness Index is determined, first, by how many 12th graders at the school took at least one AP or International Baccalaureate (IB) test during their high school years. This percentage is then adjusted based on how many of those students passed the exam. Taking and passing AP or IB exams has a similar effect on Niche.com rankings.
Cost of a more diverse curriculum
Fair referenced this methodology when she explained in an email how implementing a more diverse curriculum could mean the Bromfield School’s rankings would go down. “If HPS were to offer an Asian or African history class, and that class was well attended, that class would decrease the number of students in AP European History, or other AP social studies courses offered through the school because most students will not choose to take more than one social studies course per year.”
To Fair, this is a necessary sacrifice. “I hope that building a more equitable future for our world matters more to HPS and other white districts than maintaining a high ranking with U.S. News & World Report; but it will mean deeply, thoughtfully re-evaluating how we measure our own success as a school.”
What Fair wants to see is an ongoing effort by the community to diversify the curriculums and to listen to the voices of people of color. “Only when students and families of color say that they truly feel comfortable and represented in the school have we done the work that we are trying to do.”
Changes already underway, says superintendent
Dr. Linda Dwight, Harvard’s superintendent of schools, said that she is excited about the letter and the interest in social justice work she hopes it represents. She has been involved in similar work throughout her six years as superintendent, having founded the school’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee as well as Arm in Arm, a community organization that works to promote diversity and inclusion in Harvard.
Despite her enthusiasm, Dwight said that many of the changes the alumni are calling for in their letter have already been implemented or are ongoing in the schools and the community. “I think that they [the alumni] would find a different school district than when they graduated,” she said. During her time as superintendent she feels that the school’s faculty and staff have done a good job listening to students who expressed feeling unprepared for the diversity of life outside of Harvard.
Dwight pointed to the recent work of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, which has included full district professional development with guest speakers addressing the topic of anti-racism as well as a review of the current curriculum. “We’ve been reviewing and improving our curriculum both in the canon of books that we read and discuss but also … whose point of view we’re presenting in our humanities classes.”
African American writers, professional development
In an email describing examples of this work, Bromfield Principal Scott Hoffman spotlighted a research project adopted by one junior year English class. In that class, students read “The Bluest Eye,” a novel about an African American girl’s struggle with racism written by Nobel-prize winning African American writer Toni Morrison. The students then worked on and presented projects related to race relations in American history from the time of Reconstruction to the present day.
Hoffman also noted that the seventh grade curriculum includes the book “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” about racism during the Great Depression and the Jim Crow era. This year, the reading was supplemented by a presentation and discussion of race led by a parent. A list of other materials that have recently been added to the curriculums for grades 7 to 10 includes three texts by African or African American authors.
Recent professional development training for Harvard teachers has included reading and discussing books that address racism and white supremacy. So far, participants have read “Waking Up White,” a nonfiction book about white privilege and “White Fragility,” which discusses why it is so hard for white people to discuss racism. This summer they plan to read “How to be an Antiracist” and Arm and Arm will discuss it as a book group.
Additionally, Dwight said that the school has been working to support student-led grassroots efforts for social justice and to teach the town’s young people how to have difficult conversations about racism and inequality. Recently, students have led a series of Zoom discussions about anti-racism. The school sent invitations to the events to students and provided a faculty member to attend, but not participate, to ensure a safe environment.
Need for diversity consultant?
In response to the alumni recommendation to bring in a diversity consultant, Dwight pointed to several people she feels already fill that role in the community. “We have had multiple diversity partners that have come in to do professional development with us and we have some people right in the community that can be advisors … I don’t think that we need to bring someone else in. I’m not opposed to it but we’ve got a lot of specialty in the area right within our community already.”
Among those Dwight named were Rebecca Rehm, a compliance and ethics professional for Olympus Corporation of the Americas; Molly Hyde-Caroom, who recently graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a degree in business and education for social justice; and Harvard Police Chief Edward Denmark, who is a person of color and an instructor for fair and impartial policing for the Municipal Police Training Committee.
Dwight agrees that social justice work needs to remain a priority. “Professional development needs to be ongoing because, the way I see it, becoming a strong anti-racist takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of study and so continuing to dedicate time to it is absolutely a part of our agenda and interest.”
The right time
Anger over the police killing of George Floyd was one factor motivating the alumni to write the letter, but the 2015 graduate interviewed for this story said the timing was right for other reasons. “In the past when there have been such momentous civil rights and activists movements we were too young or too isolated to ... understand and act on [them] but now that some of the alumni who are writing this are young adults and have seen and witnessed discrimination and systemic racism in various ways and very personal ways in their own lives, I think that now we do have the power to act.”
Many of the alumni attended college after graduating from Bromfield, where they were exposed to new levels of diversity and racism that made them reflect on their education and community in Harvard. “Harvard is a relatively small, shielded town and … homogenous in terms of its demographics and so I think a lot of the … lessons about history and struggle and justice that we are learning now and what it means to be an ally, what it means to be actively anti-racist, are things that we didn’t learn while we were at HES or Bromfield,” explained the 2015 graduate.
While the alumni are extending their support to the school system to help implement changes, she said that, when writing the letter, they left details about their own role in the process purposely ambiguous. She said that they aren’t sure what their role should be because they are no longer part of the system. “We … want to ask the town, ‘how can we support you?’ ”
She said that some of the ideas from alumni on how they could help include engaging in further conversations with the community, fundraising to support curriculum changes, and self-educating to address their own levels of awareness.
Dwight said that she would like to see the alumni behind the letter become involved in efforts that are already alive in the community. “The first step that they could do is come into the organizations that we already have and offer their help with those existing committees.” She said that this could be done over Zoom for those who no longer live in or around Harvard. Funding is another area where Dwight said the alumni could contribute, and, in the future, she could also see the school setting up a mentorship program that would allow alumni to share their experiences with diversity outside of Harvard with current students.
School Committee offers support
The School Committee expressed its support for the letter at their meeting Tuesday night. Members thanked the alumni for putting it together. “It’s really important to have a community of current students and alumni and parents who support the prioritization of making systemic change,” said board member Sharlene Cronin. She added that she would like to see the board allocate a budget to support specific efforts described in the letter. Discussion closed with an agreement proposed by Dr. Dwight to hold a public forum with the signatories. A date for the forum is to be coordinated by Dr. Dwight and the alumni in coming days.
While the alumni are critical of the system that provided their grade school education, they are careful not to disparage it. “All of us value our Bromfield education very highly … and without it we wouldn’t be thinking about these issues, maybe,” said the Class of 2015 alumna.
She said that the alumni want to see future students benefit from the same high-quality education they had but that the curriculum needs to evolve to address more modern issues. “Bromfield always has been a leader in terms of statewide and national statistics and so having it continue to be a leader on these diversity issues is really what we want to see.”
From signatures to commitment
For Dwight, it is important that the support the letter has garnered is the start of a “sustained interest” in social justice work. “What I’d like to do is make sure we turn signatures into commitment. Because I think it’s easy to sign something and feel like you’ve done work and, instead, I need people to come in and offer assistance, offer funding, offer partnership.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated with new information about the drafting of the Bromfield alumni letter and the present day content of the AP English literature curriculum.