The most sensitive and important role administrators play is ensuring that the needs of all parties are addressed, balanced, and, as much as possible, met. For this reason, says Richard Levy, early on "we decided to have all parties come together to share their stories, issues, and concerns. We knew there could be a clash, but the community had to talk through this issue of banning." Although they strongly believed that no parent should be able to dictate the school's reading list, administrators were very concerned about how African American students felt in the classroom. They were also sympathetic to teachers, and well aware that some might perceive this challenge as being told what or how to teach. "Teachers will . . . be concerned about their intellectual freedom, about where the line is drawn," notes Lesley Solomon, Curriculum Coordinator.
In order to have the widest possible range of viewpoints, Levy expanded the committee convened to review the challenge from the mandated five people to seven so that more African Americans could be included. In the end, the committee, chaired by Levy, went through five drafts of the curriculum before they settled on the response presented to the Board of Education in December 1997.
- Develop policies that ensure that students are provided with a wide range of instructional materials.
- Have a mandated policy in place for dealing with challenges to any instructional materials, not only so that everyone is treated the same way, but so that there is a "cooling-off period" after the challenge is brought.
- Take the issue and put it in a broader context. Raise the level of the discussion so that, as Levy puts it, "it's not just 'this book or not this book.'" Instead, make sure everyone realizes it is also about issues of censorship, the rights of parents and students, and the academic freedom of teachers.
- Gather research and other points of view from dispassionate observers who can speak to all participants. In Cherry Hill, administrators assembled a range of reading materials about Huck Finn during the review of the formal challenge. Later, professors from Villanova were invited to participate.
- Be proactive with the media. Call and explain what you are trying to do before you do it, to keep everyone in the community informed. "If you have an acrimonious complaint voiced directly to the press from one of the participants, you're going to sound defensive reacting to it if you're not careful," notes Laurie Zellnik, Public Information Officer for the Cherry Hill district.
- Invite a wide range and large number of people into the discussion. Facilitate meetings and conversations among the different groups as often and for as long as you must to help everyone understand everyone else's point of view.
- Support teachers by providing background on cultural groups they are teaching with which they may not have much familiarity.
- Be careful of making mandatory "anything that smacks of 'sensitivity training,'" says Solomon, "since that implies that teachers are not sensitive."
- Let everyone see their ideas in the final product. Although two classroom teachers wrote the final curriculum, the parents' group was satisfied that it directly addressed their concerns.
Next: Perspectives from Cherry Hill: CHMCA