Newton, Massachusetts, is not the kind of town where the messages of far-right parents’ rights groups would seem to find a home.

In this liberal enclave, more than 80% of voters cast ballots for Joe Biden over Donald Trump for president in 2020.

But even here, in one of the top school districts in the nation, divisive politics has crept into the realm of education. A small but vocal group of parents are spreading the idea that declines in standardized test scores in Newton are the result of diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programming in the schools. And they are drawing from the rhetoric of national far-right groups that have sprung up in the past few years to push an “anti-woke” agenda that’s being highlighted in the Republican 2024 presidential campaigns now taking flight.

“Where does it end? When is equitable and equitable enough that you're not going to have anything?” said Jany Finkielsztein, a Newton resident whose children attended private school and who thinks Newton public schools have gone too far.

“I think this whole conversation about politics and DEI is distracting from the real work that we need to do in schools,” she said.

She is part of a group that is trying to reshape the city’s public-school curriculum and approaches to issues of race and diversity by pushing for changes large and small. That includes changing the Newton Public Schools’ official “Statement of Values and Commitment to Equity.” It was a statement first adopted by the district in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, when more than 500 white alumni of Newton’s schools implored the city to make the schools more welcoming to students of color.

Early last year, the district amended it to explicitly call for racial equity, not just equity. The new statement declares that “All members of the NPS community must actively dismantle structures rooted in racism and replace them with systems and structures that lead to more equitable outcomes for all students.”

Into this cauldron of dissent, Anna Nolin is stepping gingerly in her first year as Newton school superintendent.

A woman with straight dark brown hair in a white jean jacket stands in what appears to be a classroom
Anna Nolin, Newton’s superintendent, stepped into the role earlier this year.
Phillip Martin GBH News

A veteran with 27 years of experience as an educator, Nolin will present findings next month to Newton’s school committee about the status of the city’s public schools. She is expected to lay out how she will balance the competing demands of parents: those who are — in the name of greater academic rigor — pushing efforts to scale back diversity and social justice programs, and those who see them as key to the city’s decades long effort toward racial, ethnic and economic class integration.

Curricula, programming, library policies and DEI education initiatives will be on the table. And while Nolan told GBH News she welcomes parent engagement, she is firm that district school officials will have the final say.

“The balance is really giving parents enough information to make decisions,” she said in an interview. “But people don’t get to remove texts or add [textbooks]. The school system will provide what is akin to the curriculum. And parents can make decisions about how to frame that for their family in their home.”

For some Newton residents, that may not be enough.

DEI under fire

A newly formed parents’ group, Newton Families for Improving Academics — also known as ImproveNPS — began circulating a petition at the start of the year to create an “academic principles advisory committee” that would empower a small group of parents and educators to advise the elected school committee on school policies and practices. It ultimately garnered over 300 signatures. The group listed proposed “values” for Newton Public Schools, with the first being “Provide a culture of fairness and understanding with an emphasis on common humanity above group identity.”

On its website, ImproveNPS insisted that their efforts were meant “to build bridges and form healthy communication with Newton Public Schools and the community,” not to invalidate DEI.

But the group’s website — which disappeared in mid-September after GBH News spoke by telephone with one of the organizers — linked to just one article: “The Toxicity of DEI: A Tale From Newton, Massachusetts.”

ImproveNPS also reached out to Ashley Jacobs for advice. She’s the founder of Parents Unite, a Massachusetts-based organization formed by, Jacobs says, private-school families angry over efforts to establish equity in their children’s classrooms.

The group was formed in the wake of “the summer of 2020, when all these schools, you know, overcorrected for a national racial reckoning — which, again, you know, people have different perspectives on that,” Jacobs said in an interview. “But the point is all these schools felt, I think, compelled to solve society’s problems. And that’s not their job.”

As parents in Newton attempted to drum up support for their petition to create an advisory committee last winter, resident Finkielsztein circulated an email to a small group of parents, warning them of the consequences of DEI.

Newton schools are “intentionally and explicitly putting a divisive view of race relations into every aspect of the curriculum,” the email said. “Teachers are being trained to make lessons more relevant to their students’ background and interests, etc.; sounds great! How? By teaching about white supremacy.”

Finkielsztein told GBH News that the ImproveNPS organizers are not connected to any national conservative groups that are challenging diversity and inclusion policies. When ImproveNPS launched its effort last fall, though — then under the name Pro-Human Newton — some of the organizers reached out for support from the New York-based Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism.

“They can’t come out in Newton and say, ‘We don't like these programs that are focused on Black kids, kids of color.’”
Laura Towvim, Newton parent

Almost all of FAIR’s legal and political advocacy has been directed against DEI and anti-racism efforts across the country.

“There are some parents in Newton who reached out to FAIR looking to help have a conversation about what their concerns are,” said Maud Maron, who briefly served as FAIR’s interim executive director earlier this year. They were concerned, she said, about “academic decline” — and how their opposition to the district’s Statement of Values and Commitment to Racial Equity might be perceived.

“It’s become really hard for parents to speak up, especially if it is in the sort of unfortunate binary, if you will, between equity goals and academic goals,” Maron said. “I don’t think they’re exclusive to each other at all.”

FAIR’s work is based on a philosophy that equates diversity, inclusion and equity policies with what it calls “neo-racism” — a new twist on the idea of “reverse racism.”

GBH News sat in on a FAIR outreach and recruitment meeting on Zoom where the FAIR staff facilitator recognized that his organization has united in common cause, on occasion, with the explicitly far-right parents’ rights group Moms for Liberty.

“There’s been a few cases where we have been on the same side of them,” the FAIR host said, to "support each other in some town hall kind of situations.”

FAIR held one open house last November at the home of Newton resident Vanessa Calagna with more than two dozen participants, where some took aim at “affinity groups” in Newton Public Schools that invite students of color and LGBTQ+ youth to band together for mutual support, according to Karen Ghiron, who was in attendance. Ghiron is a mother of two NPS students, a volunteer in the Boston Public Schools and a supporter of DEI efforts. Calagna did not respond to requests for comment.

Dr. Jeffrey Flier, the former dean of Harvard Medical School, who, since retiring, has led a campaign against diversity statements in education, confirmed to GBH News that he was also present at the FAIR meet-up in Newton.

FAIR describes itself in the same vein as civil rights legal advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, standing against intolerance by the political left and right.

“FAIR ... almost feels completely crafted for somewhere like Newton,” said Laura Towvim, a Newton parent who has been active on other social issues like gun control. “It’s a lot of dog whistles on their website. The language they use is very lovely, but when you look at it basically it is an ‘All Lives Matter’ kind of narrative, it’s coded language. They can’t come out in Newton and say, ‘We don't like these programs that are focused on Black kids, kids of color.’”

It’s not a new tactic, said Harvard history and race professor Khalil Muhammad. He said FAIR and other groups co-opted the themes of the Civil Rights Movement in an effort to “delegitimize” anti-racism policy initiatives and to posit them as morally wrong.

“It’s the same obfuscation that started in the 1970s when early backlash against affirmative action adopted the language of civil rights,” he said.

“I think most parents are scratching their head and saying, ‘No, we didn’t move to Newton and pay taxes in Newton and have to buy an expensive house to have our kids not get ahead.’”
Ashley Jacobs, executive director of Parents United

The organizers of the FAIR event in Newton would not speak to GBH News on the record, but ImproveNPS supporters steered GBH News to the writings of Black intellectuals who dismiss the idea that students of color are victims of ongoing structural racism.

Jacobs at Parents Unite said changing NPS’ mission statement by adding the term “racial” to the term “equity” in 2022 was “the tipping point” for parents who reached out to her for advice.

Newton Public Schools is “adding in a whole layer of negative, divisive ideology. And it’s taking the place of academics,” Jacobs said. “The people running the schools seem to think that all these children need is more DEI because that’s going to make them better at something. It’s not, and there’s no data to even support it.”

Jacobs told the Newton parents who sought her advice that they must insist on excellence. “And I don’t believe you can have equity and excellence. I just don’t. And I think a lot of parents don’t believe that. I think most parents are scratching their head and saying, ‘No, we didn’t move to Newton and pay taxes in Newton and have to buy an expensive house to have our kids not get ahead.’”

In late March, Newton’s school committee convened a four-hour public meeting to debate the petition calling for establishment of a parent advisory group.

Hundreds of parents sit in what looks like a school cafeteria. One parent holds up a sign that reads "Parents + School = Success."
Newton, MA - March 28: More than 200 people attended the Academic Principles Advisory Committee debate and public hearing on a new proposal that would establish a new advisory panel.
Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images Boston Globe

The supporters — some of whom had been present at the FAIR meeting months before — contended that academics were slipping and Newton schools were falling behind its wealthy peer-districts like Needham, Lexington, Brookline and Wellesley.

The proposed advisory committee would make recommendations to the school committee on “systemwide goals, NPS Mission Statement and any other documents guiding development and implementation of NPS curriculum, classroom instruction, and teacher professional development.

Joshua Green, an educator with three children in NPS, took to the microphone in support of the petition. He said Newton is lacking “an infrastructure that focuses on a set of core values.”

Dorothy Kim, a Newton parent and a professor of medieval literature at Brandeis University, said the petition should be rejected. “It is a backlash to any progress from 2020 when the U.S. was supposed to have a reckoning with race in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder,” she said. “This has always been about white supremacist politics. This has never been about high standards.”

In the end, the school committee unanimously rejected the proposal.

But parents’ rights groups have left a mark in Newton.

Newton schools under fire

Another national conservative organization is making a concerted push in Newton.

Virginia-based Parents Defending Education describes itself as “a national grassroots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists imposing harmful agendas.”

Last October, in response to a complaint filed with the group, Parents Defending Education sent in a federal civil rights complaint against Newton North High School alleging that a theater production “Lost and Found: Stories of People of Color by People of Color” violated federal civil rights law by limiting auditions to Indigenous, Black, Asian and Latino students.

But a subsequent inquiry by the Department of Education concluded that no laws were violated and “no students were excluded based on ethnicity or color.”

“‘Lost and Found’ was one student’s idea and adopted by the school,” said Henry Turner, the principal at Newton North. “The student felt like their classmates of color are not participating at a rate in which they are represented in the school and thought it was important that they be engaged in theater.. And so she came up with this idea of having a performance amplifying the voices of students of color.”

A bald man in a buttondown shirt looks seriously into the camera
Henry Turner, the principal at Newton North High School, is photographed in his office.
Phillip Martin GBH News

The challenge from Parents Defending Education only succeeded in “stirring the pot,” said Turner, who is Black. He said he received death threats after the story was published by Fox and other right-wing media.

Parents Defending Education’s Virginia headquarters did not respond to GBH News’ request for comment.

“Groups like FAIR, groups like Parents Defending Education, have very little understanding of what we actually do,” Turner said. “And so they have built this story, trying to build this narrative that we're trying to brainwash our students.”

Turner points out that, when he arrived at Newton North in 2016, the school was experiencing a rash of antisemitic and racist incidents, including a carload of students driving around the campus waving a massive Confederate flag during his first week on the job.

“Our Black students were saying: ‘We don’t feel safe in the school,’” he said.

Turner said his students are now experiencing a different kind of assault as parents and national groups encroach on the schools’ efforts to be more inclusive.

“Our students are feeling attacked,” he said. “It’s not just the school that is attacked. Our students of color are feeling attacked. There are people who don’t want them to succeed.”

In the cavernous hallway of Newton North, ZZ Sayeed, a senior this year, stood in front of a public art exhibit dedicated to diversity, and said she is disappointed in those who don’t understand its value.

“I’m a part of a South Asian student association. And honestly, it just feels really empowering to know that I have a space where I can be heard,” she said. “It’s just really learning about other people’s cultures. It’s a really good open and creative space.”

A window shows this quote from Martin Luther King JR: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."
An office window at Newton North High School.
Phillip Martin GBH News

In March, Parents Defending Education also attempted to shut down Newton’s Dover Legacy Scholars program on the basis that it’s for students “who have been historically underrepresented in highest level academic programs.” But the program is open to all students regardless of color, race, ethnicity or religious background.

Parents Defending Education has reported 66 “incidents” in Massachusetts schools since 2021, which typically have to do with anti-racism and pro-LGBTQ+ policies. They’ve targeting programs in public schools in cities including Lexington, Wellesley, Needham and Brookline. Fourteen have been reported in Newton — more than any other district.

For parents supporting ImproveNPS and its petition, a familiar refrain is that academics are in decline in Newton as the district has embraced DEI programs.

Over the past decade, Newton has eliminated mathematics “tracking” in the middle schools. Tracking is the systematic grouping of students according to their perceived ability, “IQ” or achievement levels, a system many education experts deride as discriminatory.

In recent years, the school system has also changed the prerequisites for enrollment in Advanced Placement high school classes to open those classes to more students of color. While that effort has succeeded, there are also fewer students taking the AP tests that prior generations used to earn college credits.

Nolin, Newton’s superintendent, said that requires context. “This conversation ignores what has changed about the value of APs with colleges,” she said. “Since the pandemic, there's been less emphasis on the need for AP courses in order to get into colleges” — thus, less incentive for students to take the test.

Harvard education researcher Martin West — a Newton resident — agrees that there has been a loss of traction in some academic areas in Newton Public Schools. The number of students taking the AP tests has declined and the numbers passing the test have been on the decline since 2015.

But in an email to GBH News, West said there is nothing to correlate with DEI initiatives. “I want to emphasize that nothing in these data points to diversity efforts as a potential driver of this trend,” he wrote.

Pushing back

This summer, on a quiet winding street in Newtonville, a handful of white parents who have named themselves the “Newton Upstanders” gathered around a dining room table.

They said attempts to undercut Newton’s commitment to DEI must be called out publicly. To advance their agenda, they recruited a slate of candidates to run for Newton North school council, the parent body that advises the principal at the district’s largest school.

Four women sit at a kitchen table, smiling for the camera.
Several members of the Newton Upstanders, from left to right: Catherine Dun Rappaport, Kara Peterson, Aude Henin, Laura Towvim. The multi-racial group advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and the rights of LGBTQ+ students in Newton public schools.
Phillip Martin GBH News

These are normally difficult-to-fill positions, but this year, 13 people from competing camps vied for the three seats. Upstanders were elected to all three.

“I've been living in Newton for a little south of 15 years,” said member Catherine Dun Rappaport. “I’m here because my whole career has been focused on raising equity, and I really thought it was safe here in Newton. And I realize, tragically, that we’re not.”

The Upstanders fear that the conflation of DEI and the downturn in test scores has left the door wide open for right-wing groups pushing an anti-woke agenda. Aude Henin, a psychologist and Newton high school parent, is worried.

“This is a very well-organized, very well-thought-out attempt to impose some of these right-wing values in towns that are typically seen as liberal. And it’s very easy for it to take hold before we know what's happening. It's a real wake-up call to all of us in Massachusetts and beyond to pay attention,” Henin said.

‘Everyone’s superintendent’

Nolin, who took up the post of superintendent in July, said she has gone on a listening tour of the city, and met parents’ groups at barbecues, street parties, and formal meetings, to try to meet the conflict head-on.

“The way I approach this is: I’m everyone’s superintendent,” she said. “I was a product of public schools, and I believe in them deeply as a place where all people can have a bright future as a result of what teachers do in public schools. So I can’t exclude anyone from the public schools. So I have to listen more than talk.”

She said she fears that parents with reasonable concerns are being lumped into dueling factions. “And it’s never that simple,” she said.

“Am I worried about some of these groups that are trying to pull back on the DEI work that means that every child can see themselves and be successful in the classroom? Yes, I’m worried about that,” she said. “Am I also worried that we are being seen as less academically rigorous because of this work? Yes, that worries me. So we have to get the narrative right.”

“I’m everyone’s superintendent. ... I can’t exclude anyone from the public schools. So I have to listen more than talk.”
Anna Nolin, Newton superintendent

Nolin and her staff are auditing Newton K-12 curricula, school libraries, academic programming and diversity initiatives. Next month, they will present their findings to the school committee. The district will then solicit the views of people “from all viewpoints and backgrounds” in the city to create what she described as a profile of a quintessential graduate of Newton public schools.

“We’ll have faith groups involved, we’ll have businesses, we’ll have families of all types and staff and students to participate in this visioning process, which will then move to a stakeholder engagement process to design our strategic plan,” she said.

But Nolin acknowledges that, for many students and parents involved in the bitter rifts, the process of healing may be difficult.

“I just think we’re in this very polarized moment nationally,” she said. “And Newton is no different.”