By Alyssa Ho and Miya Matsumune
In the midst of uncertainty during the 2020 presidential election, students at the California School of the Arts were addressing their own political concerns at a community level. Taking issue with the school board’s decision to suspend the Advisory curriculum, some students attended the Nov. 5 school board meeting to voice their concerns, with more than 50 students and faculty there for support.
Addressed in an email to the school, Dr. William Wallace, CSArt’s school principal, explained the advisory resembled a curriculum-driven homeroom that included topics such as civil discourse, cultural appropriation, identity and code-switching.
However, on Oct. 26, it was announced advisory would be suspended because the curriculum needed to be re-evaluated, as it had never been previously approved by the School Board and thus could be in violation of the charter. What angered students, however, was that the advisory was canceled just as the administration team pitched a Black Lives Matter lesson and a follow-up All Lives Matter lesson.
“A Black Lives Matter lesson would have been really helpful because as someone who doesn’t know much about it, I have to do my own research,” CSArts senior Monica Karam said. “Plus, if it were in an educational environment, it would relieve pressure off the Black students. They don’t have to talk about it if it’s taught in school.”
However, it was this exact mentality of “teaching” Black Lives Matter that made the board question the Advisory curriculum in the first place.
“I think, reading the lesson plan, regardless of where I stand and how I personally feel about any of this, it absolutely feels like an endorsement of Black Lives Matter. I don’t think as a high school where we’re teaching minors, it is our place to endorse or force any kind of a political view on any student ever,” Genevieve Spinella, a member of the Board of Trustees, said. “I don’t feel like the All Lives Matter [lesson] is even close to being a comparison to the initial Black Lives Matter lesson that is being taught, I’m not even sure that it’s really the equivalent…”
Maya Porcelli, a senior part of the Lucha Latina board, was the main activist who rallied students together through social media. She said that it was her understanding that the board “values the feelings of conservative students over talking about issues that impact Black and Indigenous People of Color lives” and calling the act “blatant censorship.”
Porcelli said that she received a great amount of backlash for encouraging CSArts students to speak up, however, teachers helped her regain her courage.
As the Board discussed these issues with content, they stumbled across a legal problem; they concluded that Advisory would have to be suspended, as the idea of Advisory had been approved, but not the curriculum.
“It is the responsibility of all public school Boards of Trustees to oversee and approve all schoolwide curriculum, whether it is mandated by the State or created by the school,” Wallace said in a school email on Nov. 4. “The decision to pause Advisory occurred because our Administration did not seek the approval of the Board in this matter.”
Despite this proclamation, students were still upset, especially over the comments of the CSArts teacher Astrid Paraspolo to the Board on Oct. 7.
“I have spoken to several Conservative students who are also afraid to share their views in class. They are afraid they’re going to be ‘doxxed’… Because some voices may not be heard out of fear,” Paraspolo said. “It’s our job as educators to introduce different viewpoints to students and help them analyze that information. It’s important to present different viewpoints of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Black Lives Matter organization, and these viewpoints should not be presented as ‘opposing viewpoints’ but as valid viewpoints.”
Thus, Porcelli and over 50 other students and staff, including Karam, attended the Nov. 5 meeting. During the public forum, many students shared their positive experiences with Advisory, with some saying they felt that the harder, more uncomfortable discussions were leading to learning and growth.
“As an Autistic, Mexican, gay student, I receive many inappropriate questions pertaining to my identity, such as, ‘Well how old are you mentally?’ and ‘if you’re Autistic, why can you talk?’ ‘Why are you gay?’ and even worse, I’ve been called slurs,” senior Gabriela Monares said. “When Advisory was introduced, I saw a decrease in these questions. I felt advocated for. I didn’t have to defend myself constantly, and people were listening.”
Students also spoke to the Board’s discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement, and how they felt that the Board, as well as CSArts administration/staff, were valuing Conservative students’ opinions over the opinions of students of color.
“Advisory is supposed to be a safe space for students, and right when students need it the most, it was taken away. Right when this country is at its most divided, a tool that could be used to unify our school was taken away because certain students’ voices were prioritized over others,” junior Gillian Chamberlin said.
“Students of color deserve to take up space and have our voices be heard, no matter how uncomfortable it may make some students,” said Porcelli.
The initial response to the student speeches was overwhelmingly positive. Dr. Ralph Opacic, the founder of the Orange County School of the Arts, commended the students for “speaking so eloquently and talking about how important advisory is to them, and how important that vehicle is for them.”
Adam Williams, a CSArts teacher, who attended the meeting, said: “The students who spoke were incredibly professional, but they were even more passionate… The advisory that they were describing is the same one that I wish I would’ve had in high school, so seeing them argue for it was really uplifting.”
The students were uncomfortable being a part of the meeting.
“It was scary for them, talking to a bunch of authoritative figures and criticizing them on their decision,” Karam said. “But I’m really happy and proud that I go to a school with these types of students.”
The Board of Trustees explained that from their perspective, the decision was not racist.
“This isn’t an issue of anti-Black Lives Matter, this isn’t an issue of being insensitive to the students of color. There could be nothing further from the truth. This is just an issue of procedures and protocols…” Dr. Opacic said.
However, the pause on Advisory was extended until the CSArts administration created a curriculum for Advisory that can be approved by the Board. The Board also discussed how Ethnic Studies Citrus College classes might become available for dual enrollment students in future years.
Dr. Opacic addressed how some faculty felt they were not equipped to teach certain material, and that they would like to offer someone with training on how to handle these important conversations.
He ended his speech by saying: “We hear you. We understand how important it is to you… But please be patient. We are just trying to make sure that we protect CSArts so it’s here next year, five years from now and so forth.”
When asked about how she felt in regards to the Board’s response, Porcelli said: “Disappointed, but honestly not surprised… We did everything the way we were supposed to, and yet we still weren’t listened to.”
There were similar reactions from other students.
“In theory, I thought it [Ethnic Studies with Citrus College] was a good idea but if it’s not a requirement, it’s not going to work. Advisory forced every student to shut up and listen,” Karam said. “Unless they made that class a requirement to graduate, then it really wouldn’t be as impactful as advisory could have been.”
Porcelli believes that there is still more work to be done. She plans to keep speaking at the Board of Trustees meetings until something changes. She hopes other students will continue to join her.
Her message for those who do not see this controversy as an issue is: “I think the problem is that people are seeing this as just an issue about advisory when it’s not really about advisory. The cancellation of advisory is just exposing a larger problem of racism that exists within CSArts administration… It’s baked into the structure of our school. I don’t think our school specifically, but schools in the United States in general… This is just one step in a long journey.”