Woodland Park School District adopts conservative American Birthright social studies standards after the state board rejected them

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Campaign signs in Woodland Park in Teller County often label certain candidates as “conservative.” There has been an increase in overt politicization of traditionally nonpartisan school board races. The Teller County Republican Party has donated to four candidates on one of the slates.

The board of a small school district in Teller County passed a resolution Wednesday night to use the conservative American Birthright social studies standards that emphasize patriotism and American exceptionalism, just a month after the state board of education rejected them.

The standards were championed by the district’s new interim superintendent, Ken Witt, a former Jefferson County board president. He was recalled along with two other board members in 2015 after they tried to inject patriotism into the history curriculum.

“In all honesty, in my opinion… the proposed American Birthright standard is better aligned with the Woodland Park School District purpose and core beliefs,” said Witt, who was hired by the board of education on Dec. 21, despite opposition from community members and a student-led petition.  

That statement prompted several loud “no’s” from the audience. At one point the meeting was adjourned after a man yelled out “this is a joke” and the board president threatened to call the police in the small mountainous community northwest of Colorado Springs.

Is Woodland Park now in conflict with the state's standards?

Wednesday’s move left members of the Woodland Park RE-2 School District public with many questions about whether this means a fundamental change in how social studies is taught in their district — and whether the new standards conflict with state standards.

All Colorado districts are required to adopt local standards that meet or exceed the state standards.

The adoption of the Birthright standards appears to roll back the newly adopted state standards, which call for a more inclusive, robust understanding of American history, civics, and ideals.

“Do you believe that adoption of the standards will improve our ability to teach the full, complete, warts and all, history of this country to our students?” board vice-president David Illingworth II asked Witt.

Witt said he did, calling American Birthright a “thorough and balanced standard that includes all of the major issues.”  He said he consulted with state school board members who backed the Birthright standards to replace Colorado’s social studies standards in December.

American Birthright standards are crafted by a national conservative coalition, the Civics Alliance. The standards focus on Western civilization and American exceptionalism and highlight patriotism and Christianity — and have drawn sharp criticism from teachers and national social studies groups. Critics say the standards are too narrow, presenting a single, glorified narrative of U.S history that minimizes the perspectives of many.

The Civics Alliance argues that social studies instruction has been warped, effectively whittling away American liberty. The standards oppose teaching about current events, civic engagement, project-based learning and teaching that promotes diversity, equity and inclusion.

In rejecting the standards in December, members of the state school board said they were “too extreme” for Colorado and didn’t comply with new state laws requiring that students learn the history, culture, and social contributions of various minority groups as part of their instruction in social studies. New Colorado laws also call for teaching financial and media literacy, as well as Holocaust and genocide studies, which American Birthright standards don’t address.

Many parents and students alike are dismayed by the new standards and feel like they were left out of the process.

A new conservative school board elected 14 months ago in Woodland Park promised more parents’ rights and changes to counter declining enrollment. But their moves have roiled many in the community, including students who staged protests outside their school.

Megan Desmidt, mother of a high school junior, was dismayed after reading a Birthright document stating curriculum should ban any form of political activism with no credit for and no encouragement of service-learning, civic engagement, action civics or related activity.

“Sorry, Kiwanis. Sorry, Scouts. Sorry, Young Republicans. Sorry, student council. This is what you're voting on tonight. This is a big deal.”

Audience members questioned why the public or school officials weren’t given a chance to learn about the standards before the board voted on them.

“To me, your process feels rushed and closed off to input,” said district parent Khurshid Rogers. “If this is something you believe has merit, why not share it and offer people time to become familiar with it and offer feedback?”

Rogers asked whether the standards will change what students learn about, whether the district will be in compliance with state standards, and whether parents can opt out of their students learning from the Birthright standards.

“If it will directly impact the content taught to my middle schooler, will you stand by your policies on controversial topics and offer me an opt-in/opt-out opportunity as well as provide alternate learning assignments?”

Her questions were not answered. Illingworth said school leaders and the new superintendent will determine whether curriculum or courses will change.

“They are going to assist our educational leaders in developing the curriculum for next year,” he said.  

“This is something the state board is basically forcing our hand on, forcing the school districts and educators all across the state on,” Witt said.  “They're changing standards and everybody's going to have to adapt and react to that. And this is part of that journey.”

Ongoing attempts to onboard social studies standards that promote 'patriotism'

Witt said the district will review the current curriculum and make determinations.

“Just to be clear, this is not dictating curriculum.”

Witt, who has a background in technology development and business management, was president of the school board in Jefferson County when he and fellow conservative school board members were recalled in a tumultuous election after two years in office.

The recall was sparked after Witt and others passed a resolution stating that AP history classes should promote "patriotism and ... the benefits of the free-enterprise system" and should not "encourage or condone civil disorder."

Critics said they wanted schools to teach a sanitized version of U.S. history that promoted patriotism and downplayed civil rights issues. For weeks, Colorado high school students protested the proposal that the AP history course promotes patriotism. Four high schools closed for a day. The issue became national news.

Woodland Park Board president David Rusterholtz addressed the turbulence in the school district by taking to the public microphone during the public comment session Wednesday night. He described his efforts as a “Christian, pro-life American”  to bring prayer to the school board meetings.

“Some people here would say that this new conservative board of directors has caused this division in our community. I would like to pose once again that it did not cause the division, but it revealed a chasm that already existed.”