Some parents say an upcoming Civil War Ball at Ranchos Middle School is culturally insensitive, and are asking Golden Valley Unified School District to reconsider the event.
The dance, slated for this Friday, has been held for the past 17 years as a way for eighth-grade students at the Madera County school to celebrate the end of the Civil War unit in their history classes.
Vicki Snowden-Jackson, the parent of a sixth-grade student, said she was appalled to hear of the dance, and wants the district to reconsider it before her son starts middle school.
Jackson, an African American woman, said it’s a culturally insensitive way to teach the Civil War.
“They're not holding celebrations when they teach World War II, and the Nazis threw parties then,” Jackson said. “Why do it with one of the darkest times in American history?”
Golden Valley Unified Superintendent Andy Alvarado on Wednesday called the ball an opportunity to teach about controversial topics from the past.
"In no way, shape, or form are we having the students perform skits or acts that are culturally insensitive," Alvarado said.
A printout from the school lists the ball as one of the assignments students can choose to do in order to earn a required 50 points toward their grade. Students can also perform a song from the time period for the same amount of points, or recite a poem or make artwork for less credit.
Students can also prepare food from the era to bring to the ball for credit. One of the options is fried chicken.
Jackson said that’s another particularly hurtful aspect of the planned celebrations, and that the district doesn’t understand how it comes across to African American families.
The population of Madera Ranchos is 66 percent white and 1.7 percent black, census data show. Madera County's population as a whole is 34 percent white and 4.2 percent black.
Jackson said she has met with Alvarado regarding the event and the larger issues of cultural insensitivity she has seen in the district.
She said Alvarado told her earlier this month that the district would form a committee with African American parents to discuss the dance specifically.
She said Alvarado also told her the Civil War freed the slaves when Jackson pointed out that period-appropriate wear for her son might require him to dress like a slave.
Jackson said she doesn't know of another school district in the central San Joaquin Valley that celebrates the conclusion of its Civil War lessons with a ball.
"I've lived in the Ranchos for almost 25 years and had no idea my son would experience the Civil War curriculum in this way," she said. "I don't see how forming a committee is the answer."
District defends event
The ball, which started in 2000 and attracts around 500 people, is the culmination of one of the most memorable cross-curricular projects in the district aimed at teaching eighth-grade students about the Civil War across all classes, Alvarado said.
For example, students research the war and what it meant in American history. They learn about Civil War inventors in science class, about the period literature in English class and learn the waltz in physical education, he said.
Students dress in period costume and perform the dance at the event. For extra credit, they can research recipes and prepare food of the era to share. Fried chicken is one of several suggestions, he said.
The superintendent said the ball has not been a problem before. If issues came up, it has typically been handled at the school with options for teachers to come up with alternative assignments if needed. The district is not opposed to reviewing the project.
But Alvarado said "this aligns with our academic standards and meeting standards with our board. It's a time in history when things definitely occurred that no one is proud of. It's not about glorifying that."
Aleks Appleton: 559-441-6351; @aleksappleton