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As many as one in five students at a Twin Cities charter school were kept home in protest late last month by Muslim parents who demanded the school drop its use of LGBTQ-friendly picture books.

Out of about 1,000 students at DaVinci Academy in Ham Lake, 140 to nearly 200 students were marked absent on Sept. 26 "assumed due to this issue," said Holly Fischer, the school's executive director, in an email to Sahan Journal.

At a school board meeting the day before, Fischer said the books — used in kindergarten through fifth grade as part of DaVinci's anti-bias curriculum — were intended to help children understand differences in an age-appropriate way. The 120 books, curated by the St. Paul nonprofit AmazeWorks, include 24 with LGBTQ characters.

After a four-day attendance strike, the students returned to class Oct. 2. Now the School Board is proposing a committee of parents to review the issue, and Fischer is arranging a meeting with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which is representing the parents.

But Muslim parents say they may pull their kids from DaVinci if the school does not change the curriculum. Two who spoke with Sahan Journal said that teaching their children about LGBTQ issues infringes on their rights as parents and violates their faith.

Students' test scores register above the state average at DaVinci, a highly regarded K–8 charter school focused on the arts and sciences. Black and white students have similar scores in math and reading, unusual in a state known for its achievement gaps.

White students make up 60% of the school, but DaVinci's recent enrollment increases have been fueled by its reputation among Muslim families who praised its academics and its diversity. Most new students are Black, and half speak a language other than English at home.

Under Minnesota law, parents have the right to review their children's school curriculum and "make reasonable arrangements" for alternative instruction if they find any material objectionable. At the Sept. 25 school board meeting, Fischer said that any parent can opt out of the material and that she had accommodated every such request.

At the same time, she stressed that DaVinci has students who need LGBTQ-affirming books: "All the students at DaVinci deserve safety, and I think that's the important part of the story."

But Muslim parents who spoke at the meeting suggested they might leave if the school did not remove the books from the curriculum. Sana Soussi, a parent and school board member, asked Fischer what would happen if 150 Muslim students left overnight.

"Losing 150 students would be horrifically detrimental," Fischer replied.

DaVinci's anti-bias curriculum includes 20 picture books in each grade level for K-5 students that focus on diverse children, such as a girl who learns to be proud of her Arabic culture and a Sudanese refugee child who wants his name pronounced correctly. They also include books about a transgender child whose parents are expecting a baby, and a boy who wants to dress as a princess in his school parade.

Teachers report that children using the books "have more empathy for each other because they're engaging in multiple perspectives," said Rebecca Slaby, AmazeWorks' executive director.

Of the 80 parents, mostly Muslim, who attended the Sept. 25 school board meeting, two had a chance to speak. Aboubakr Mekrami said the school needed to be sensitive to the beliefs of Muslim families and asked the board to remove the curriculum.

"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."

Amna Soussi, another parent, said Muslim families were considering leaving the school. That would cost DaVinci, since charter schools, like other public schools, receive state funding on a per-pupil basis.

"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."

Fischer responded that the school uses the AmazeWorks materials because as students returned to in-person learning following the pandemic, teachers noticed them "being unkind to one another" and looked for ways to foster understanding.

Kindergarten teacher Lauren Metty said that in her classroom, the AmazeWorks books teach students about holidays besides Christmas. "A lot of five-year-olds don't know that not everyone celebrates what they celebrate," she said.

Hannah Dalske, who teaches gifted and talented classes, spoke with trembling voice about a high school classmate who died of bullying "for being an openly queer male." She cited surveys showing that harassment drops dramatically in schools with an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum.

"This is the school deciding to be part of a solution," she said.

In an Oct. 1 email to parents, Fischer said that no DaVinci teacher was scheduled to teach "the curriculum in question" for the next several weeks. In an email to Sahan Journal, she explained that the school would be using that time "to order more replacement curriculum to support students who have opted out."

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This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for a free newsletter to receive Sahan's stories in your inbox.