Donors pressured Jacksonville private school to drop diversity curriculum

School official says decision to ditch Pollyanna program had nothing to do with donors’ message

News4Jax has uncovered documents... showing a Jacksonville private school, seemingly being pressured by donors to drop a diversity curriculum program. In the letter, former leaders of The Bolles School warned that the school's financial support was at stake, if the curriculum was adopted. News4Jax I-Team investigator Joe McLean got ahold of that letter.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Six days before The Bolles School announced it would not move forward with a planned diversity curriculum, the Board of Trustees and others received a message signed by five former board chairmen saying financial support was in jeopardy if the school adopted the curriculum.

“As a past board chairman, alumnus and past-parent, we are deeply concerned about the direction of our school,” the letter said in part. “... Now, it seems we are responding to social agendas, requiring these agendas within our curriculum and telling students how to think.”

The letter was addressed to the current board of trustees and its chair, Fernando Acosta-Rua. The letter was signed by A. Chester Skinner III, Richard Dostie, Clancey Houston, Rodney McLauchlan and William Lynch — all of them former chairmen of the school’s Board of Trustees.

The letter was forwarded via email by Skinner to a group of over 30 stakeholders, including current board members, with a note advising the group to “please read and take under serious consideration as [you] make your decision tomorrow as to the path of our school going forward.”

This letter was sent to the board of trustees of The Bolles School on Jan. 20, 2021. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

Current President and Head of School Tyler Hodges responded to News4Jax’s inquiry about the letter, acknowledging it was sent, but Hodges said it had nothing to do with the school’s decision to drop the Pollyanna curriculum.

“It had absolutely no bearing on our decision to change course on our curriculum implementation,” Hodges said in an emailed response. “The decision to pursue alternative enhancements to our curriculum was made weeks earlier.”

The decision, Hodges said in a Jan. 26 post on the school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion page, was made because “certain elements of the Pollyanna curriculum created much angst amongst our community,” but it wasn’t clear which parts of the curriculum were at issue.

“Members of faculty, staff, and members of our community had issues with various parts of the curriculum, including, in some cases, its age-appropriateness,” Hodges told News4Jax via email Tuesday.

The letter from former board leaders described the new curriculum as potentially detrimental to the school’s donations and said it betrayed the school’s mission.

“If we do not stand firm in our history and mission, we face losing the support not only of our parents, current and future, but also alumni and financial supporters of Bolles,” the former chairmen’s letter said. “We all have worked too hard to build our brand and reputation only to see it compromised by the empowerment of political and social agendas within our Bolles community.”

News4Jax asked Skinner and the other former board members what part of the Pollyanna curriculum would “compromise” the brand and mission of the private school, but no response was immediately received.

“The Bolles School is committed, and as Head of School I am personally committed, to a comprehensive program of diversity and inclusion,” Hodges said. “It is an essential component of our strategic plan, and reflects our core values. I am working with our faculty and staff, in consultation with our parents, to implement a customized curriculum that is right for our students and age-appropriate for each grade. We have made a lot of progress so far, but the curriculum piece will take some time.”

Bradley Johnson, former interim president and head of school, issued the following statement:

“Though I have not been formally associated with Bolles since 2015, I have been around the place for 48 years now, and I can say with confidence that the school tries to do the right things for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or any other factor. We just want good kids who want to learn. The financial aide program, which is need-based only, is the most obvious example of this inclusive ideal and the only reason I was able to attend back in the ’70s. I can never thank Bolles enough for all the opportunities it has given me.”

In the spring 2020 semester, Bolles and other area private schools were at the center of social media criticism by students and graduates of color who posted their experiences with racism at the campuses.

Allegations of the use of racial slurs and faculty’s lack of concern about the open use of those terms were posted anonymously under Instagram accounts @BlackatBolles, @BlackatBishopKenny and @BlackatEpiscopal. Later, another Instagram account called @WhiteAtBolles was also launched on social media but has since been scrubbed from the site.

In the wake of that online criticism, the school said it launched a slew of initiatives to bolster its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.