Hannah Tiller

On Jun. 7, a class of 2013 alumnus of New Canaan High School, Will Hennessy, drafted a “Letter to NCPS” which was presented to the New Canaan School Board. Hennessy hoped his letter would start a conversation to expand educational resources on topics such as systemic racism and white privilege in order to better prepare students for the diverse college and professional world. 

The “Letter to NCPS” outlined specific actions to increase community wide-diversity: hiring more educators of color, re-framing courses to focus on the experiences of Native Americans and African Americans and expanding organizations such as A Better Chance (ABC) — which helps kids in underprivileged communities take on new educational opportunities. The letter was written shortly after the tragic murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and more. Gathering over 750 signatures from alumni and current students from the New Canaan Public School system, the letter and collected testimonials were presented in a virtual Board of Education meeting on June 15.

“I think my purpose was one, to begin a conversation in our own community. I think that there are a lot of ways that I have been reflecting recently, even since my time in New Canaan, around how we can be embracing inclusion and equity,” said Hennessy. “I think that one of the things that we were taught was to use our democracy in a way that we think should bring about a better tomorrow.”

In this letter, which claims that the curriculum beginning in elementary years is focused on a Eurocentric narrative, the community suggests reforming how courses are taught to improve the education of race relations in the United States. Though those who signed the letter agreed that history curricula should study past events rooted in racism and accomplishments made by people of color, it was also agreed that authors of color were underrepresented in the curriculum. 

At the virtual School Board meeting, New Canaan High School alumni discussed these curriculum changes. Jelani Alladin, an alum of New Canaan High School and A Better Chance, said that “there are stories written by revelatory POC authors that should be included in the curriculum.” He suggested replacing “Catcher in the Rye” with “Dear Martin” by Nic Stone and “Tired Beth” with “Native Son” by Richard Wright.

“Might I also suggest better equipping teachers to reckon and discuss the themes in these pieces so that all leave the halls of NCHS with a deeper, more personal understanding of the world at large?” Alladin said. 

New Canaan Board of Education members discuss “Letter to NCPS” with its writers at a virtual Board of Education meeting on Jun. 15th. Credit: NCPS Videos

Those who wrote the letter have another demand: teaching students about the racial disparity in public policy. Hennessy and others feel as if these implementations will work towards preparing students to better understand their privilege. 

The curriculum changes appear necessary to many, and the desire to change the culture of New Canaan Public Schools’ predominantly white faculty is a change that comes with them. The letter presented to the School Board noted that non-white faculty were highly underrepresented. And it provided plans to increase the proportion of faculty of color employed by the school system. 

“In totality, NCPS employs one Black faculty member despite strong benefits that BIPOC and white students can experience from teachers of color,” the letter reads. 

Those who signed the letter hope that the School Board will consider hiring more people of color to support greater diversity and opportunity for all. Teachers of color provide students with more perspectives, allies and support. The proposed reforms to “create more opportunities and scholarships for minority students outside of New Canaan to attend schools within the NCPS system” would also welcome students of color into the school system. 

The non-profit organization A Better Chance is one of the programs implemented in New Canaan to provide housing and educational opportunities to students, many of which are students of color and from less affluent backgrounds, in New Canaan. ABC members and alumni held webinars — called “A Chance to Unpack,” that discussed ways our community can support one another. 

2013 New Canaan High School grad and ABC Scholar Devaun Bovell, a planner and host of the webinars, said, “At the surface level, it was really a chance for ABC scholars to engage in conversation surrounding our identities and how welcome or unwelcome we felt in New Canaan. The thing was that we didn’t want to single out any one person, but just talk about how the community around us could improve.”

These webinars included many ABC Scholars and were conducted over multiple days. Current ABC scholar and senior at New Canaan High School Ajamo Carraby-Jones reflected on these conversations. Carraby-Jones said, “We were talking about allies and how we need allies to help us get our message across. We need all types of allies, not just Black people.”

Even after the “Letter to NCPS” was presented in the Board of Education meeting in June, discussions surrounding racial reform in the New Canaan community continue through these webinars, social media and other conversations. Hennessy explained that groups get together to conduct these conversations weekly or biweekly.

The next Board of Education meeting will be conducted on August 24 to set district goals for the year.