How One County Is Teaching Kids to Be Critical Thinkers in DeSantis’ Florida

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By Giselle Balido

August 29, 2023

Schools in Broward County are grappling with the Republican governor’s education policies as they try to provide the best learning opportunities for all their students.

The idea that it takes a village to bring up a child is not just a beautiful concept to Dr. Howard Hepburn, the Deputy Superintendent of Teaching & Learning at Broward County Public Schools. It was his reality. 

The accomplished instructional leader grew up in Belle Glade, a small agricultural town in western Palm Beach County, a very affluent locality. His own community, however, was rife with poverty. But only in the material sense. The people of the small farming town–whose motto claims “Her Soil Is Her Fortune”–focused on the educational needs of their children to make sure that they had what they needed to excel. 

“They knew education is a lever for change in communities like ours,” Dr. Hepburn told Floricua. “That community is what motivated me to continue to give back as an educator because I knew it was a lever for me to change the trajectory of myself and my family. It took a village to raise us. And I’m just paying it forward every day.”

Grappling with Censorship and Fear

For this reason, the idea of communities working together to promote academic excellence is something he strives to bring to Broward schools. This is especially important at a time when educators across the Sunshine State are grappling with what some education advocates and lawmakers call a climate of “censorship and fear” instilled by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education policies.

RELATED: Teaching in DeSantis’ Florida Has Become Impossible, Educators Say

Those policies include a ban on discussing issues of gender or sexual preference in grades K-12; a set of educational standards that require educators teaching Black history to tell students that slaves benefited from slavery; the use in public school classrooms of scholastic material from PragerU Kids that downplays the role of racism in US history and modern society, embraces Christian nationalism, disputes climate change, and expresses doubts about inequalities based on gender, race and sexuality. The DeSantis administration also backed a statewide book ban movement that has made Florida the state with the second highest number of school-related book bans in the country, according to a recent analysis published by PEN America.

A Constant Battle

Floricua spoke with Dr. Hepburn to learn how one county in Florida is handling that reported climate of censorship and fear. 

Floricua: Many educators are concerned about what they are calling “the whitewashed vision” of American history promoted by the new set of standards to teach African American history in public schools. What do those standards signal to us here in Florida?

Dr. Hepburn: I can understand their sentiment, especially with all the new legislation and the interpretations of those legislations coming out of our state. I can’t get into the minds or fully understand the intent of some of our political leaders, how they create legislation around some of these issues. However, we have a robust academic department, and we keenly go through the curriculum and decide on what we’re going to teach and how we’re going to teach, to make sure that what our teachers are conveying to our students is accurate and factual; that it reflects their culture and diversity. 

What do you personally think are the real dangers to society created by promoting an incomplete or distorted idea of history?

As an educator, I think we’ve always had to compete against what’s in the media, what’s coming out of legislation. That’s always been a constant battle. I think what’s dangerous is when we focus too much on that and not on what families can do in their own households to educate their kids about their own history, about their own cultures. We have strong families, we have strong communities, our communities are advocating for their needs, they’re speaking up and that’s great. 

The use of PragerU videos–which promote an extreme right ideology– has been approved for public schools across the state. What are your views on that?

We’ve made a decision not to use those videos. We’re not using those currently and we’re not going to use those in the future. We wholeheartedly feel like what we have to offer students with our current curriculums, what our academic teams are putting together, is the best course to ensure that what we’re providing is factual and true and engaging for our students. So, we won’t be using that platform at all right now nor in the future.

Will schools incur any penalties for not using the PragerU materials?

There are no consequences, there’s no penalty. It’s a resource that’s been adopted by the state. And so, we have autonomy to use it or not.

RELATED: Nearly 50 Teachers Plan To Resign in Hernando County Amid Attacks on Public Education

If the school a child attends decides to use the PragerU materials, do parents who object have any recourse? 

With the parental rights rules, of course you can inquire about the material that’s being used in your child’s classroom, and if it’s not a requirement, you can opt out of things like that.

Here’s what I tell any parent having a concern about instructional material or books that their kids are being exposed to: It is not a new issue. As a parent, my wife and I question books and instructional materials that our kids bring home all the time, because we’re thoroughly involved in their education, and we’ll call the school if we have some questions. I think what’s new is that there’s a formal process for this now because parents have been challenging books and instructional materials for a long time. So, I think parents just need to go into the school’s website and see what that process looks like.

With all the new policies being implemented in schools, do you believe this will have an effect on education?

Times are changing, kids are changing, environments are changing. And so, we will evolve to meet those demands accordingly so that our students can excel and be competitive in this new environment that they’re going to face when they become adults. We have leadership teams in our schools that are making sure we provide the best learning opportunities possible so that our kids are critical thinkers.

Author

  • Giselle Balido

    Giselle is Floricua's political correspondent. She writes about the economy, environmental and social justice, and all things Latino. A published author, Giselle was born in Havana and grew up in New Jersey and Miami. She is passionate about equality, books, and cats.

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