Brody Petska, Mason Petska, and Dylan O’Neal were only in third grade in Camdenton, Missouri, when they first encountered Common Core, and immediately it was clear something had gone off in their education.
“When you’re 9 years old, well, we didn’t really understand ‘political indoctrination’ or anything. But they always talked about [how] in the new standards you’d have to do this, we’d get in trouble for doing math our way, or get points deducted for doing any sort of assignment our way if it didn’t follow Common Core standards,” Brody said.
By middle school, Common Core was “in full force” with assignments aimed to get students to think a certain way. But there was a more pressing issue at hand.
There were multiple teachers who would outright make fun of students, calling them names, on a repeated basis. In eighth grade, the three students and their friend Maxwell Spurgeon decided to push back, gathering signatures for a petition and reporting the bullying to the administration. Shortly thereafter, they founded SPARK, or Students Protecting All Rights for Kids.
When they reached high school, Common Core was something they could ignore no longer.
“There was a lot of political bias,” Brody said.
Getting Assignments Thrown Out
The students started collecting assignments they felt shouldn’t be allowed in public schools, and brought them to the administration to try to get them taken out of the curriculum.
These included an article by David Bender, chief strategy officer and political director of Progressive Voices, in which students read descriptions of what liberals and conservatives stood for, and were asked to highlight what they agreed with and self-identify as either a liberal or conservative. Bender’s affiliation aside, the liberals, as he defined them, “generally approach human nature with a great deal of optimism,” while conservatives, “not having such an optimistic opinion of people, feel they must often be controlled for their own best interests.”
Another assignment they were told was meant to “challenge or change your beliefs” had students look at various paintings through a feminist lens, and a Marxist lens. One of these paintings showed Purgatory.
“You have a Catholic student looking at their own religion, trying to change their beliefs about their own religion, with these lenses—that’s what you want them to do,” Dylan said. “You’re trying to change this guy’s religion with this assignment … that was crossing the line. You can’t do that in public school.”
In 2016, the district stopped using Common Core. But the students still saw many assignments stamped with Common Core standards, so they started collecting those for removal as well.
When they first started to submit assignments for review and removal, the administration pushed back. They were called in one by one to be questioned, or interrogated. It was likely to scare them off the issue, but they said it didn’t work.
“It was a scary thing, you know, as a sophomore, junior, in high school. You didn’t really know what you were doing, besides knowing this is wrong,” Dylan said.
“They even tried to shut our group down numerous times. Camdenton High School was not fond of SPARK,” Mason said. It felt like they’d had a target on their back ever since they’d stood up in eighth grade.
They were sent on a wild goose chase, told to refer to this or that portion of the school policy. Eventually they managed to get the district to form a committee of community members to review assignments they submitted for bias, which was grounds for removal. But even then, they’d each gotten a zero or F on an assignment even after it got dropped. Assignments that they got removed once—like the reading on liberals and conservatives—might get quietly put back in.
So they’ve been documenting the process, keeping copies of assignments and materials given out in the classroom.
“We have proof of everything happening,” Brody said.
Things got easier in some respects. SPARK is a membership organization, and at any given point in time they had up to some 30 students; some would leave under pressure, or graduate, and new students continued to join. The group became well-known not just in school but in the larger community.
“I’d say that’s what helped us the most, was that it wasn’t just a couple of students voicing their concerns, it was 20, 30 students going up there,” Mason said.
“And the students felt better knowing that they had a voice,” Dylan said.
They felt they were dealing with a First Amendment rights issue, with freedom of speech and freedom of belief, and they were also calling attention to students’ rights—that students attending public school deserved a fair education. They were tackling nonpartisan issues, and the membership reflected that: Students of different ethnicities and with a range of political and religious beliefs participated.
“You can’t fight political bias with more political bias,” Brody said.
Parents, once made aware of what students were facing, were staunchly supportive.
“They were disgusted, more or less,” Dylan said of his own parents learning about the kinds of assignments they were being given in schools. Other parents in the community had similar reactions. “I haven’t met one parent who supported the assignments we got kicked out.”
In many cases, Dylan added, parents are completely unaware of the level of indoctrination, and it’s not their fault. The kid comes home from eight hours at school, and the parents will ask how it went. They’ll say “good,” and that’s the end of it.
“Any kind of fundamentals, you know, morals that your parents tried to teach you throughout your life, gets kind of stripped away from you when we go into the school system,” he said.
“It’s become an epidemic across the nation and a lot of people don’t even know it’s happening,” Brody said.
As they gained traction, they heard support from teachers as well—quietly. They would hear from faculty members who agreed the assignments had gone too far, and supported what they were doing.
Despite the administration pushback over the years, the students don’t wish their school any ill will. They understand that some of them might be facing pressure, but that still doesn’t make it right.
“Really we don’t want to harm Camdenton, we don’t want anything bad to happen there. We want it to be a good place to go to school and we want it to be a place where people can learn,” Dylan said.
Legislation and Expansion
SPARK has turned into a movement, and though the three students have already graduated high school and have moved on to college, they haven’t stopped their efforts to reform their local district.
“What I’ve seen, I don’t want another person to go through the same thing. It’s really repulsive,” Mason said.
They have met with local, state, and federal officials who have expressed support for their efforts, and radio interviews and news coverage have led to people from other states reaching out to SPARK (joinsparknow.webs.com).
There is currently a bill in the works in the Missouri House of Representatives named the SPARK Bill. It would make indoctrination in public schools illegal, possibly with a penalty that would affect school funding or accreditation.
One of SPARK’s goals is to expand nationally. They have already been holding workshops for parents and students of neighboring school districts, so they can set up similar membership groups and start to advocate for bias-free education. People from Virginia, Washington, Oklahoma, and a few other states have contacted them to say they’re starting SPARK as well.
“We’ve been working on getting more people to know about what’s happened here, and to let people know they’re not alone,” Mason said.
“They’ve been reaching out to us with the same kind of stuff we’ve been dealing with,” Mason said.
“This is not just a Camdenton problem, this is a nationwide problem,” Dylan said. “There’s nothing really else out there like this. It’s for student and by students. The more people that will see this, I think the more people will join it.”