Editor's Note: This commentary has been edited for length from an email sent to School Committee and members of the Arlington Public Schools administration on April 13, 2018.
We are Arlington residents who object to the process used to arrive at the new, district-wide policy on the celebration of Colonial Day. The change includes prohibition of optional period costumes, and has led to the cancellation of Colonial Day in at least one school.
Not every elementary school community in Arlington chooses to celebrate Colonial Day, but in those that do, it is more than a cherished tradition. It is one of the few immersive learning experiences available to our children. Many of us have volunteered at Colonial Day and can attest that 3rd graders are enthralled to learn what daily life was like in Arlington (Menotomy at the time) hundreds of years ago.
3rd graders have enjoyed activities such as changing their names for the day to those typical of the period (for example, Obediah or Charity), learning in a mock one-room schoolhouse, making butter or candles, and witnessing a mock "trial" in the Colonial era justice system. They ate apple crisp or Johnny cakes and participated in egg and spoon races. Some students chose to wear costumes; others did not.
Many fifth graders, when asked to list favorite memories of elementary school, name the science trip and Colonial Day as the two highlights of their K-5 experience.
Some of the discomfort with Colonial Day seems to be with the name itself, and the impression that the day is a glorification of colonialism. But one of the definitions of "colonial," according to Merriam- Webster, is "made or prevailing in America during the colonial period." Colonial Day was a way to give kids a picture of a day in the life of a Menotomy child in the mid-18th century.
Some argue that Colonial Day is an outdated, offensive tradition clung to by lifelong Arlingtonians. But most of us were not born in Arlington, or in Massachusetts, and some of us were born outside the US. We support Colonial Day because we believe that teaching history in this hands-on way has value.
Legitimate questions have been raised, such as whether a different name (Menotomy Day?) would be more appropriate, and whether students are given a sanitized version of history. Parents have said that dressing in costumes is uncomfortable for some students. These are points worthy of discussion, and we showed up, when invited by our School Councils, ready to discuss them.
Yet despite many recommendations that the administration engage the community and hold a public, open forum, the process that led to issuing the new policy did not allow for this discussion. The process, frankly, has been unfair, and very far from transparent.
Last spring, Superintendent Bodie wrote to parents: "Next fall, we will convene a committee of parents, teachers, and administrators to examine Colonial Day as an event…."
But it wasn’t until March that some of us were invited to share our thoughts with School Council representatives. We did so, yet were not permitted to attend a forum that apparently included district administrators, teachers and a select group of parents, and was described in a letter by one of the elementary school principals:
"...In March, parents from our different school councils were invited to share their perspectives with district administration. The event was facilitated by an Arlington cultural competency consultant…In small groups, we discussed the different perspectives around Colonial Day. Some of the exchanges were very powerful. Parents shared personal experiences with colonialism in other countries and the traumatic effects on their families."
None of us were given the opportunity to attend this session, although we had repeatedly reached out to administrators to share our perspectives. Yet vehement opponents of Colonial Day, some of whom were not School Council members, were invited to attend. How were attendees selected?
If, as promised, the process had begun in the fall, all parties could have been heard, and schools would have had time to plan for this year. It seems that the administration made the decision without hearing all views, and chose not to communicate it widely.
We are deeply distressed that Arlington children will be deprived of a hugely rewarding educational experience, and concerned that the new policy will have the opposite effect of what the administration intended. It will breed resentment and create more division in Arlington, rather than encouraging inclusion and diversity, which we all want. We feel betrayed by the process, which was not conducted in a public, honest manner.
We have urged the School Committee to direct the Superintendent to reconsider this decision, review the process that was used to make it, and to allow for more public input. It is not lost on us that everything we are asking for – transparency from our leaders, a voice in our town activities, public participation – is rooted in the tradition of the Colonial period.
Alan Biscan and Heather Crowley
Kathleen and Nicholas Bono
Lauren and John Boyle
Chris and Julie Hall
Melissa and Todd Hinck
Brett and Kate Loosian
Chad and Kate Mikkelson
Doug and Molly Sanford