Community Watches GDS Under Attack: ‘This Puts Us on the Map of What’s Right’

Digital illustration by Nava Mach.

When Senator Ted Cruz of Texas began pressing Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson about her connection to, and past praise for, GDS, Jackson responded with a tribute to the school’s founding story as the first integrated school in D.C.

“The idea of equality, justice, is at the core of the Georgetown Day School mission,” Jackson, a member of the Board of Trustees, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

Two Republican senators used GDS to tie Jackson to educational practices they find objectionable—including the teaching of what they call critical race theory—during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings that lasted from March 21 to 24, thrusting the school into the national limelight as part of contentious debates about K–12 education.

GDS community members, away from school for spring break, watched the line of attack emerge with bewilderment, frustration and a uniting sense of pride in the school’s values.

After hearing Jackson’s defense of GDS, theater director Laura Rosberg emailed all high school students and staff, saying Jackson’s response to Cruz made her weep. “She represents us so brilliantly,” Rosberg wrote.

Rosberg said in a Zoom interview with the Bit that she was “gobsmacked” by the Republicans’ questioning. But, she added, “I felt instantly that this is the best fundraiser ever for GDS, that this puts us on the map of what’s right and moral.”

Head of School Russell Shaw’s first message about the hearings came on March 28, the penultimate day of vacation, in an email addressed to the school community. He commended Jackson’s description of GDS’ founding and mission, announced that the school would have increased security protection and said administrators would say more “at the appropriate time.”

“Filled and Overflowing With Critical Race Theory”

About 12 minutes into his allotted time to question Jackson on March 22, Cruz, having heard her paean to GDS’ mission, said, “If you look at the Georgetown Day School’s curriculum, it is filled and overflowing with critical race theory.”

Republican politicians have used the term to castigate educational approaches they see as playing up the role of racism in American history and institutions. 

Cruz held up several books that he said are “assigned or recommended” by GDS and read short excerpts from one, scholar Ibram X. Kendi’s illustrated children’s book Antiracist Baby. He quoted, too, from Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You by Kendi and Jason Reynolds—a book the senator claimed to have read fully.

Kendi writes in Antiracist Baby, “Babies are taught to be racist or antiracist—there’s no neutrality.”

When Cruz asked her whether she agreed “that babies are racist,” Jackson said, “I do not believe that any child should be made to feel as though they are racist or though they are not valued or though they are less than, that they are victims, that they are oppressors.”

She also said that she does not know whether critical race theory is taught at GDS and that the Board does not determine the curriculum. The Board has been involved in shaping GDS’ anti-racist efforts over the past two years in its high-level governance role.

Senior Julien Berman, who is familiar with critical race theory from research for debate, said he has not encountered the formal area of scholarship—which, broadly speaking, critiques other understandings of American law and society by examining the continued influence of systemic racism—in his classes at GDS.

He noted that the GDS History Speaker Series recently hosted Professor Scott Hancock of Gettysburg College for a talk on Zoom about critical race theory.

Three of the books Cruz mentioned are listed among dozens of other items on a public list of “anti-racist resources” prepared by GDS’ diversity, equity and inclusion office. Antiracist Baby appeared on a menu of suggestions on the GDS website for commemorating Black Lives Matter at School’s 2022 Week of Action. Stamped (For Kids) was recommended to third through fifth graders on GDS’ 2021 optional summer reading list.

“I have not reviewed any of those books,” Jackson told Cruz. “They don’t come up in my work as a judge, which I am, respectfully, here to address.”

Junior Sophie Bronner said she does not think the same attacks would have been leveled against a white male nominee who sat on GDS’ Board. “Attacking a school that is trying to be inclusive as a way to put down the first Black, female judge who will sit on the Supreme Court,” she said, “I just think it’s so negative and uncalled-for and inappropriate.”

When asked about Cruz’s statement that GDS teaches critical race theory, Bronner, also a debater, said, “I completely disagree. If GDS were overflowing with critical race theory, I would be just the happiest girl in the world.”

“A Negative Light”

Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn was the first senator to talk about GDS, albeit not by name, in the hearings.

In her opening statement on March 21, Blackburn told the nominee, “You serve on the Board of a school that teaches kindergarteners, five-year-old children, that they can choose their gender and teaches them about so-called white privilege.”

Blackburn continued that the same school “has hosted an organization called Woke Kindergarten.”

A minute-long video about women who influenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—part of Woke Kindergarten, an “abolitionist” educational approach developed by Akiea “Ki” Gross—appeared on the same webpage of suggestions as Antiracist Baby. Gross presented at a lower school in-service day, according to an article by storyteller Danny Stock on the GDS website.

Blackburn also said that the school “pushes an anti-racist education program for white families.”

GDS parent Vicky Marchand—who co-founded and leads the White Anti-Racist Group, or WAG, which discusses white privilege—told the Bit that Blackburn’s seeming characterization of the group was false because parents asked to start it. Six to ten parents now attend the group’s monthly Zoom meetings, Marchand said.

However, parents are required to sign an enrollment contract that includes a new provision mandating that they actively support GDS’ efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion and combat bigotry. Members of the Board discussed the change at a virtual parent meeting in January.

Sophomore Talia Berger said she was saddened to see “something that I know GDS takes pride in,” its emphasis on diversity and inclusion, “put in a negative light.”

A Burst of Publicity

The Washington Post, The New York Times and other news organizations published articles about GDS in the wake of the hearing-room mentions. A photo of senior Leila Jackson beaming at her mother as she testified went viral online.

Community members watched strangers by turns lambaste and applaud GDS online and discussed the attention GDS was receiving. “The entire situation has brought so much pride and so much excitement to the community,” senior Pallavi Bhargava said in a phone interview.

GDS has also been the subject of coverage by right-wing media. The headline of one story posted on Breitbart, a far-right outlet, claimed that GDS teaches “cultural Marxism.”

Berman said he is concerned that GDS may face similar threats or protests as did Comet Ping Pong, the D.C. pizza restaurant—owned by a GDS alumnus—that in 2016 found itself at the center of a conspiracy theory about a sex trafficking scheme run by Democratic officials. Others interviewed by the Bit did not share the worry.

In his March 28 email, Shaw said that the school would increase the presence of security staff as a “precautionary step” and that police officers would regularly monitor the campus. “To be clear, no specific threats have been made against GDS,” Shaw wrote, adding that “we have received many, many calls from individuals around the country voicing their support for the School.”

School officials have not commented publicly on the Republicans’ attacks against GDS. According to Rosberg, Shaw emailed teachers asking that they speak with the communications office if contacted by journalists.

Shaw did not respond to emailed requests for an interview with the Bit.

Rosberg said she read another Breitbart story that accused the school of pushing “adult sexual content on children,” including through the 2021 spring musical, Spring Awakening, which she directed. 

“Somebody trying to raise hell, that’s all I make of it. It doesn’t bother me one bit,” Rosberg said. “Talk about digging up something from nowhere.”