This commentary is by Jennie Gartner, the founder of Rutland Forward, and a former social studies teacher at Rutland High School.
In October 2020, I resigned my position as a social studies teacher at Rutland High School, effective at the end of this school year. As a teacher, and adviser for the Gay Straight Alliance, Model UN, and New Neighbors student organizations, my primary role has been as an advocate for my students.
I chose to leave after 16 years because the lack of leadership in our school district on issues of local, state and global importance inhibited my ability to educate and advocate for my students in a meaningful and candid way.
In its district mission statement, Rutland City Public Schools says it “cultivates a passionate, diverse and resilient community of critical thinkers who learn with purpose, create innovative and responsible solutions, and lead lives of integrity.”
Through my 16 years in the district, this has been my goal.
As a teacher and adviser, I have encouraged engagement in the community as a way to make our world, and especially my hometown of Rutland, a better place. I have always tried to stand for equity, honesty and justice, and have encouraged my students to do the same.
And let me be clear: These ideas are not the purview of any one political party or particular ideology.
I have attempted to model for my students a life lived by the words of author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, who writes: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
There has been speculation as to why I am leaving Rutland High, speculation that ranges from inanity to slander. I have been accused, in public, of indoctrination of students. I, and some of my friends and colleagues, have been subject to poisonous lies and character attacks in public meetings, in the media, and in public forums online.
It is not lost on me, nor on my current and former students, that these lies are told about me and my colleagues in public, and yet there is no public apology or even demand for accountability by the people who make these accusations, or by the leaders in our school district and the community who continue to let these lies go unchecked.
I constantly hear from teenagers who bemoan that the school environment as dictated by leadership will not permit them to discuss anything of importance in the real world, because these topics are deemed “too controversial” by the people in charge. The lack of opportunity for honest conversation is taking its toll on our students, the school district, and our community.
We are all witnessing firsthand the fear and vitriol that fills the vacuum when people in positions of leadership fail to encourage critical thought, meaningful conversation, and accountability.
I will not apologize for fostering an educational environment that encourages students to think critically and question the world as they know it because that is actually the point of education.
And so I return to the district’s mission statement. It is obvious to many of us that Rutland City Public Schools will not “cultivate a passionate, diverse and resilient community of critical thinkers” if we do not give our students the freedom to discover what they are passionate about;
If we do not encourage them to consider points of view that are divergent from their own or from those of the adults in their lives;
If we are not allowed to teach them how to think critically about important topics that may at times be uncomfortable to think about.
Resilience cannot be achieved if we shield our young people from learning about and engaging with the world that is outside their immediate view.
And so I choose to leave Rutland City Public Schools, a place where I have spent the majority of my life as both a student and as an educator.
I choose to invest my time and energy where I will not be a focal point of people’s anxiety about a changing world and where they fit into it, a place where leadership encourages critical thought, civic engagement, and honest, meaningful conversations.
And lastly, to those who say they are “not racist” and who believe that “racism is not an issue in our community:”
There are school districts, towns and cities all over Vermont who are meeting this 21st-century moment with open minds, open dialogue and open hearts. Their leaders are innovative thinkers, who embrace diverse populations, and have inclusive visions for their schools, workplaces and communities as a whole.
These places do not hold on to painful legacies of the past as a futile means to stop the world from changing; their residents work together to build an inclusive future that embraces differences as strengths. And these Vermont communities are growing, both in terms of population and opportunity for their residents.
I know which kind of community my friends, colleagues and I are working for Rutland to be. It’s time for Rutland City Public School’s leadership, and the leaders of our city, to act in the best interest for our students, our residents, and our community’s future.