A guest speaker’s presentation on the religion of Islam has prompted mixed reactions from Cranbury School parents, which was on display during the final Board of Education meeting in 2019.
During the meeting on Dec. 10, the issue at hand stemmed from a parent’s letter to The Cranbury School about not receiving notice about the world religion topic of the guest speaker earlier this year and the student assessments provided after the lecture.
The presentation from the speaker was for middle school student’s social studies curriculum in world religion.
“As part of The Cranbury School seventh grade class, a guest speaker provided presentations to students on Sept. 28, 2016 and March 18, 2019. These presentations were designed to compliment and enhance the unit,” said Susan Genco, principal of The Cranbury School and superintendent of the district. “The purpose of the guest speaker was to introduce the main tenants of the faith, highlight the diversity of the cultures that practice the faith and review the fundamental beliefs we have of Islam.”
She said the guest speaker’s presentation aligned with the New Jersey standards.
“As part of the student’s thoughtful reflection to the speaker’s presentation, the students wrote individual letters of thanks to the speaker through an assignment. The reflection was generated by the teachers and provided the students with the opportunity to apply what they learned in the guest speaker’s presentation and apply that to the larger themes of the seventh grade course,” Genco said.
She explained that some parts of the reflection included an introduction, specifically to discuss three things they learned from the guest speaker and then were asked why they thought it was important to learn more about other religions and cultures. Students were also asked if they were surprised by anything they learned, if it broke down any stereotypes for them and how could this help them in the future.
“I am the author of that parent letter,” said Sarah Lee. “The principal informed me that this presentation was a part of the social studies curriculum. We expect that the lines of communication would open and to help each other. We are asking for that courtesy and kindness of communicating to us about what is being taught to our children. For many of us, religion is sacred and personal.”
She said that her and her family are Christians and wishes for the school to provide guest speakers on every religion.
“Our school is not a mosque, temple or a church. This is a public school. There are checks and balances,” Lee said. “If Islam is given a guest speaker, then allow one for every religion. Otherwise have it for none. The principal said at this time there are no additional guest speakers. Where is the equity in that?”
Lee said the children’s assessment assignment given to them after the lecture was troubling and confusing.
“I heard about the issue with this letter and was concerned that the Board of Education was not going to support this kind of presentation in the future. I think presentations from this community member and parent are important to have in our school,” said Cassie Shea, another school parent.
Shea stated part of the state learning standards in her public comment concerns about the standard to explain how various culture groups have dealt with the conflict between maintaining traditional beliefs and practices.
“I would encourage The Cranbury School and the administration to welcome this speaker for when my children are in middle school,” Shea said.
Fran McGovern said that as a parent and a resident of Cranbury, one issue should not cast the board, administration or teachers in a bad light.
“I do not believe religion belongs in a public school, period,” McGovern said. “I think the mosques, synagogues and churches are more than capable of having forums on multiculturalism, comparative religions and etc.”
Mike Ferrante of the Cranbury Township Committee said he was saddened by the letter from Lee.
“I had seen the letter Mrs. Lee circulated among parents in the Cranbury community and was so saddened she destroyed the Cranbury curriculum and even more so saddened that she called out a single member of the Cranbury community,” Mike Ferrante said. “The presentations by the speaker are part of the world religion section of the social studies curriculum. In that section, the class drills down on three world religions Christianity, Judaism and Islam.”
He said the community is fortunate to have two social studies teachers who can provide first hand experience with Christianity and Judaism.
“This member of our community was asked to give a lecture on the Islamic religion and it is worth noting that Islam is taught in every seventh and eighth grade class curriculum in New Jersey and the country, as part of the mandated curriculum on world religion. This speaker also did not come in untrained.”
Principal Genco said when the need arises, the school considers inviting guest speakers to enhance and/or complement the curriculum.
“Instructional materials, including guest speakers, are at the shared discretion of the administration and classroom teacher,” Genco said.