The Civics and Government Institute at Montclair High School has not yet undergone the “reimagining” principal Jeffrey Freeman announced in February. But students in the program say they are working to address issues of diversity and inclusion within the classroom. Program president Aidan Dowell, right, is seen at CGI’s presidential debate (COURTESY AIDAN DOWELL)

By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

An announced “reformation” of Montclair High School’s Civics and Government Institute, originally planned for September, hasn’t yet taken place — with administrators saying they had to first focus on getting school buildings back open amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

But CGI student leaders say they’re working to create more inclusive classrooms from the inside, hoping to address longstanding concerns over the program’s diversity. 

The Civics and Government Institute, one of four small learning communities at Montclair High School, “focuses on the study of citizenship, government and social issues,” as described by the program page on the district’s website. Students typically join during their sophomore years. They spend three of their class periods with the program — English, history and government studies. 

Students use a student-created constitution, run for offices within the program, and discuss social movements and current events, CGI student president Aidan Dowell said. There are just over 200 sophomores, juniors and seniors enrolled in the program for the 2021-2022 school year, Dowell said.

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Founded in 1997, CGI has been celebrated for involving students in civics, but also faced criticism from some community members who say its student population isn’t diverse enough.

In a May 7, 2020 letter to Montclair Local, the then-president, then-vice president and members of CGI said they had seen a lack of diversity in the program, but were working to combat it. The students — Ali Khawaja, Keira Hasan, Jacob Schmeltz and Aidan Ward — said CGI has worked “toward balancing the color spectrum of the students within.” But they stressed they didn’t consider the program itself racist, and that work to diversify it was ongoing. 

The letter described CGI as having once selected students based on their grade point average “with the goal of stopping white flight,” but multiple teachers, including lead CGI teacher Anne Baney, told Montclair Local earlier this year that simply isn’t true. A 2000 New York Times article described how an essay requirement was being reexamined to help diversify the program.

In recent years, there have been no requirements to join the CGI program, CGI vice president and senior Morgan Crawford said. 

“There’s a stereotype that CGI is this all-white, super-elitist, with a GPA minimum requirement to get in,” Crawford said. “But that is frankly untrue.”

Montclair Local reached out to Kalisha Morgan, the district’s assistant superintendent for equity, curriculum and instruction, to inquire whether the school system had collected information on th demographics of its small learning communities. She referred the question to Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, who said by email: “We are excited that CGI is continuing. It is a wonderful program and the high school administration is leading the program.”

Senior Anaya Fleming-Thomas, who has been a part of the program since her sophomore year, said she didn’t know about a lack of diversity in CGI until her first day.

“My sophomore year, walking into my first class with CGI and being the only minority in there, it was really insane because that’s never happened to me before,” Fleming-Thomas, who is Black, said. 

Discussions in the program’s history classes often involve race, and “it can go really left really, really fast,” Fleming-Thomas said. Students in the program have made comments that make students of color uncomfortable and scared to participate in conversation, she said. 

“I’ve seen, in the past, teachers don’t shut it down so it can be a really, really big issue,” Fleming-Thomas said. “It usually falls on the students to correct it.”

‘Reformation’ announced

Late on a Friday in February, heading into President’s Day weekend, MHS Principal Jeffrey Freeman sent an email to CGI students and families titled “Reformation of CGI.” The high school would be revising the program’s mission, goals and curriculum, and the program would launch with a new name and direction in September, Freeman said. He didn’t say what if any specific concerns would need to be reformed, though. 

Kenneth Dowell, father of program president Aidan Dowell, told Montclair Local in February some people interpreted the letter as meaning CGI would be eliminated. No plans to rework CGI had been shared with him before then, he said. 

Freeman sent a followup letter on Feb. 16 — CGI is not canceled, he said. The scope and design of the program will not change “in any way that detracts from its long held academic standards and rigor,” his followup said.

Freeman’s clarification followed a note from Ponds to Montclair Local. Ponds said he’d meet with the school administration and then communicate with parents. He responded to a follow-up email saying the program was “not canceled.”

Freeman’s letters didn’t specifically say whether the diversity concern was among those the reimagining would look to address. But he said in his second letter he was seeking feedback from the whole community “in an effort to foster inclusivity and equity for all.”

Freeman has not yet responded to multiple emails with questions about CGI sent to his district address starting July 21. 

Struggles with diversity and inclusion in CGI have always been “crystal clear” to those in the program, Crawford said.

“Looking around the classroom and seeing how many black and brown and Asian faces there are, there aren’t that many proportional to the school,” she said.

But the letters from Freeman were confusing, Crawford said. 

“It was so out of the blue,” she said. “CGI was like home. I saw the same faces again and again every day and got to really know the kids and the teachers and the community in general. It was sad to think that it might be taken away.”

Crawford’s concern for her senior year in CGI turned out to be a moot point  — CGI’s reimagining has not happened yet, Ponds told Montclair Local Oct. 5.

“Currently there are no changes to the structure or scope of CGI,” he said.

The district has been focused on getting students into school buildings during the pandemic, and Ponds has not had time to meet with CGI stakeholders — parents, students and teachers — to enhance the program, he said. 

“The district is committed to a collaborative approach whenever we address curricula programs,” Ponds said.

Goals for this year

In a letter sent to CGI families before the start of the 2021-2022 school year, lead English teacher ​​Anne Baney-Giampoala and lead history teacher Kaitlin Schulz said this year will be focused on social emotional learning. 

“This will again be a strange, uncharted year, but we are so excited and energized to return in person to this very special community,” the letter said.

Neither Baney-Giampoala nor Schulz, the lead teachers for 2021-22, have responded to emails sent to their district emails starting Oct. 1.

Crawford, who is Black, said she felt comfortable as a student of color in the CGI program, but she does remember feeling offended by comments from one or two classmates. Despite her positive CGI experience, she stressed she cannot speak to how all students in the program feel — everyone’s experience is different, she said. 

“For some, it might feel like they’re being ostracized, which is reasonable, you know, just looking at the classroom and seeing who looks like you, who comes from a similar neighborhood as you, who praises the same higher being as you, or who is attracted to the same kind of person as you,” she said.

Students in the Civics and Government Institute at Montclair High School are seen here at a Social Reformers Hall of Fame event. Vice president Morgan Crawford is on the far right. (COURTESY AIDAN DOWELL)

Crawford said she and Dowell, as vice president and president, are working to make the CGI community as supportive and inclusive as possible. The student leaders are reaching out to freshmen who have not yet joined small learning communities and encouraging them to join, Crawford said. Within the program, they are inviting all students to participate in conversations and making space for those who are less assertive, she said. 

“I know that teachers and my classmates, and everyone really does try their very hardest to make sure that everyone is seen as equal and that their opinion really truly does matter,” Crawford said. “What makes you different is supposed to be accepted and embraced and celebrated because that’s how you really get to real substantive conversation and real growth and learning.”

‘A way to really go forward’

Diversity comes in many forms and it’s important that the program is welcoming to all, Dowell said. As a queer student, he said he has felt “not quite right” in the program, comparing himself to the rest of the CGI students. But winning the presidential election after exclaiming “guys, I’m so gay,” while fumbling over words during a speech shows that the program is moving in the right direction, he said. 

“I think a lot of things are perpetuated about CGI, about it not being inclusive and not being diverse, and while I think those things are true to an extent, I think we have the tendency within CGI and outside of CGI to make the problem seem bigger than it is,” Dowell said.

Fleming-Thomas said she feels comfortable in CGI now, but she’s not sure if that’s because the culture has evolved or because she is now in her third year in the program. 

“There’s definitely room for diversity in CGI, so students of all colors can feel excited to learn about government,” Fleming-Thomas said. “I really hope it becomes that.”

All CGI stakeholders — students, teachers and administrators alike — will have to work together to better the program, Fleming-Thomas said.

Changes to CGI classroom culture have to come from the students, Crawford said. She chose to run for CGI vice president so she could help build a more inclusive community and to show students of color that they are welcome in the program and can hold positions of power. 

But the diversity and inclusion issues that CGI faces are not unique and not quick fixes, Crawford said. 

“I think there are definitely places that we need to improve, but I don’t think that’s CGI’s fault necessarily,” she said. “I think that’s just how being a person of color in America is.” 

Crawford and Dowell said they are planning to send out a survey to all CGI students in the coming weeks, asking what they think is working well and what they see as areas for improvement. 

“Sometimes, learning about our government is learning about how it oppresses you,” Dowell said. “And using that knowledge and that education, not as a way of feeling helpless or hopeless, but as a way to really go forward as your own advocate for yourself.”