As many as one in five students at a Twin Cities charter school were kept home in protest last week as Muslim parents demanded the school drop its use of LGBTQ-friendly picture books.
Starting Tuesday, September 26, between 140 and 192 of the approximately 1,000 students at DaVinci Academy in Ham Lake were marked absent each day last week “assumed due to this issue,” said Holly Fischer, the school’s executive director, in an email to Sahan Journal. Smaller numbers of students were marked absent for other reasons.
DaVinci Academy uses the books in its kindergarten through 5th grade classes as part of an anti-bias curriculum. Fischer explained at a September 25 school board meeting that the books are intended to help children understand differences in an age-appropriate way, a need that became evident when children returned to school struggling with social skills after pandemic closures. The 120 books curated by the local nonprofit AmazeWorks include stories about immigrants and children with disabilities; 24 have LGBTQ characters. Several times each month, teachers read AmazeWorks books to their classes.
Sahan Journal interviewed two Muslim parents with children at DaVinci Academy, both of whom later asked not to be named in the story. They told Sahan Journal that teaching children about LGBTQ issues infringes on their rights as parents—and on their religion. One parent, an imam, told Sahan Journal that homosexuality was a “major sin” in Islam.
After a four-day attendance strike, the students returned to class on October 2. At its next meeting, scheduled for October 23, the school board plans to discuss setting up a parent committee to review the issue. Fischer is also arranging a meeting with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is representing the parents. But parents say they may pull their kids from DaVinci Academy altogether if the school does not change the curriculum.
A growing, integrated charter school
DaVinci Academy, a K–8 charter school 20 miles north of Minneapolis, provides instruction focused on arts and sciences. Students’ test scores register above the state average—and Black and white students have similar scores in math and reading, a rarity in a state known for its achievement gaps. Sixty percent of DaVinci Academy students are white. But the school’s enrollment has increased in recent years, fueled by its reputation among Muslim families who praised its academics and its diversity.
Between the 2018–2019 and 2022–2023 school years, enrollment increased by nearly 20 percent. The majority of the new students are Black, and half of them speak a language other than English at home, including Arabic, Oromo, Somali, and Amharic. With so many Muslim students at DaVinci Academy, parents say, the school should have consulted them before including this new material.
In recent years, Republican-led efforts to limit discussions of LGBTQ issues in schools, like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, have received extensive media attention.
In some pockets of the country, Muslim families are pushing back too. In the past year, Muslim families pushed for an LGBTQ book ban in Dearborn, Michigan; protested a policy aimed at affirming children’s gender identities in Burnsville, Minnesota; and sued for the right to opt their kids out of LGBTQ picture books in Maryland.
Under Minnesota state law, parents have the right to review the curriculum and “make reasonable arrangements” for alternative instruction if they find any material objectionable.
At the school board meeting, Fischer said that any parent can opt out of the material, and that she had accommodated every such request. Many students already opt out of certain lessons, and the school provides alternate opportunities, she said. At the same time, she stressed that the school has children who need the LGBTQ-affirming books.
“To value one child’s safety over another child’s safety is not something we can do,” she said at the school board meeting. “All the students at DaVinci deserve safety, and I think that’s the important part of the story.”
Fischer said the school was looking for ways to accommodate large numbers of children opting out of a lesson, and suggested the solution might include small groups reading different books at the same time.
But the Muslim parents who spoke at the school board meeting suggested they might leave if the school did not altogether remove the books from the curriculum.
Sana Soussi, a parent and school board member, questioned Fischer in the September 25 meeting about what would happen to the school if 150 Muslim students left overnight.
“Losing 150 students would be horrifically detrimental,” Fischer replied.
‘They deserve to be affirmed’
AmazeWorks, a St. Paul–based nonprofit, arose out of an incident in a Minneapolis Public Schools classroom 27 years ago. A second-grade girl with two moms received a birthday card from a classmate that read: “I hate you, girl lover.”
Rebecca Slaby, AmazeWorks’ executive director, said one of the moms formed a supportive group that decided to use storytelling and picture books to expose children to different family structures.
Its anti-bias curriculum, which DaVinci Academy has adopted, now includes 20 picture books in each grade level for kindergarten through 5th grade that focus on understanding many kinds of diversity.
Among the books are titles that aim to give kids a boost as they start school; one about a girl who learns to be proud of her Arabic culture; and others about a Sudanese refugee child who wants Americans to pronounce his name correctly, and a Native American girl collecting jingles for her powwow dress. They also include a book about a transgender child whose parents are expecting a baby, and a boy who wants to dress as a princess for his school parade.
“Kids need to see themselves reflected positively in the curriculum,” said Slaby, who grew up as a Korean adoptee and says she never saw herself reflected in the media. “And they also need a window into the lives of people who are different from them.”
Teachers using these books have reported that children “have more empathy for each other because they’re engaging in multiple perspectives, and they’re learning about each other as well,” Slaby said.
All schools have kids who are genderqueer or have gay parents, she said. “They deserve to be affirmed as well.”
The DaVinci Academy school board meeting
Although 80 parents, primarily Muslim, had come to the September 25 school board meeting to share their thoughts about the AmazeWorks curriculum, only two were given a chance to speak during the 10 minutes that is usually set aside for public comment.
Aboubakr Mekrami thanked teachers for their work with kids, but said the school needed to be sensitive to the beliefs of Muslim families. “We teach our children to basically respect others,” he said. “However, when the topic of LGBT comes up, we strongly believe that we need to be the ones who approach it and teach it to our children based on our beliefs. This is a fundamental belief for us, and one in which we have no wiggle room. We strongly object to this optional LGBT curriculum being used in the classroom.”
He requested that the board remove the AmazeWorks curriculum.
“This is not about book banning or excluding anybody,” he said. His children have LGBTQ friends, he added. “We are not against diversity, equity, and inclusion, but the way this should be presented should ensure that different beliefs are respected. We need to be authentic to our beliefs. And if we don’t feel like we are getting our needs met, families may leave.”
Parents applauded. Then Amna Soussi, another parent, stood up to speak. She credited DaVinci Academy’s recent enrollment growth to an increase of Muslim families.
“These topics will create unnecessary stress, anxiety, and worries within our kids because it goes against our fundamental beliefs, our religion,” she said. “It is our right to introduce these sensitive, controversial and religious-based topics to our kids, when we feel is the appropriate time and age to do so.” The AmazeWorks curriculum would deny them that right, she said.
Soussi added that Muslim families were considering leaving the school, which she said could cost the school heavily. Public schools, including charter schools, receive funding from the state on a per-pupil basis.
“Why put your school at a risk of losing over 135 students because of this?” she said. “This will affect the school’s enrollment. It’s going to throw a curveball in your funding.”
Again, parents in the audience clapped.
For the next hour, the school board considered other topics like test-score results and field trips. Then, teachers presented on the AmazeWorks curriculum.
Fischer, the school’s executive director, said the school sought out the AmazeWorks resources because teachers noticed a need for it as kids returned to in-person learning. “Our professional educators were seeing students being unkind to one another, and were looking for ways to create conversations that would help foster mutual understanding,” she said.
Kindergarten teacher Lauren Metty said that in her classroom, students often bring up holidays like Christmas. Books in the AmazeWorks box help them learn about other students’ holidays.
“A lot of five-year-olds don’t know that not everyone celebrates what they celebrate,” she said. “The books that are in the AmazeWorks resource really helped us to have a jumping-off point to have better and more fruitful conversations about these topics.”
Hannah Dalske, who teaches gifted and talented classes, cited the harassment LGBTQ students face nationwide, and then produced a ribbon in honor of her high school classmate, Erik Turbenson.
“I have owned this ribbon for 21 years,” Dalske said, her voice trembling. “That is now officially longer than the lifespan of the boy that it represents. We attended high school together, and he died due to the sheer volume of bullying he endured for being an openly queer male in Anoka–Hennepin when they had a no-tolerance policy.”
As an independent charter school, DaVinci Academy is not affiliated with the Anoka–Hennepin School District, but it sits within the district’s borders. In 2011, the state designated Anoka–Hennepin School District as a “suicide contagion area” after nine student deaths in two years. At the time, the school district had a “neutrality policy,” forbidding school employees from condoning homosexuality. Some of the students who died were LGBTQ, or perceived to be, and bullied by their classmates.
“I survived. He did not,” Dalske said. “The behaviors that led to his death are exactly those that students 21 years later are reporting.”
Dalske also cited surveys showing that harassment dropped dramatically in schools with an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum.
“This is the school deciding to be part of a solution—a solution we desperately need,” Dalske said.
After teachers presented, the school board discussed the issue.
Under school policy, the board retains final authority to make decisions on curriculum materials, but delegates those decisions to the school’s executive director, academic director, and curriculum committee. Melanie Persellin, the school board chair, clarified that the board “doesn’t necessarily have a role” in deciding whether the school uses the AmazeWorks books.
Board member Sana Soussi said that using these picture books for lessons about inclusivity would exclude 150 kids. If an alternate curriculum is available, she suggested, why not just use those books for all the kids?
“We have made a commitment at DaVinci to treat all students equally,” Fischer said. “And so standing on the need of one child over another feels like not an equitable decision.”
Ultimately, the board decided to discuss a future proposal for a parent committee to address the issue. After a discussion of how the school planned to accommodate Friday prayer for older Muslim students, the school board meeting adjourned.
Back to school—for now
Many Muslim parents left the school board meeting frustrated that they had been allotted only 10 minutes, overall, to speak, and that the board had not made any decision. Some thought that the teachers presenting about the AmazeWorks books had behaved disrespectfully. For the next four days, many Muslim parents held their children home from school.
In an October 1 email to parents, Fischer apologized that communications between the school and families had left some parents feeling alienated.
She also provided parents with the school policy they can utilize to request the official reconsideration of any curriculum material. She told them that no DaVinci teacher was scheduled to teach “the curriculum in question” for the next several weeks.
In an email to Sahan Journal, Fischer explained that the school would be using that time “to order more replacement curriculum to support students who have opted out.”
On October 2, the students returned to school. But it wasn’t clear how long they would stay.
The only acceptable solution, one parent told Sahan Journal, was to remove the books from the curriculum.
Sahan Journal data reporting fellow Cynthia Tu contributed to this report.