VERMILLION, S.D. (KELO) — As the school year comes to a close, one University of South Dakota professor is preparing for her final months of teaching on the Vermillion campus.
Dr. Dyanis Conrad-Popova is an assistant professor of curriculum instruction at the University of South Dakota (USD) but only for a few more months. By the start of the next school year, Conrad-Popova will have left the university. She says the reason can’t be boiled down to just one thing, but recent legislation regarding ‘divisive concepts’ in education was one of the factors in her decision to teach elsewhere.
KELOLAND News first spoke with Conrad-Popova in February regarding two proposed bills that would have banned what the bills defined as Critical Race Theory (CRT) from all levels of education in South Dakota. The governor’s office cited Conrad-Popova as one example of a South Dakota educator teaching ‘divisive concepts’ to students at USD.
Conrad-Popova explained to KELOLAND News in February that she does not teach CRT, but an entirely different academic theory called Critical Social Justice. In her classes, Conrad-Popova said she teaches students to recognize biases and preconceived beliefs based on a variety of identities and how they could impact how they interact with students in the classroom.
In the months since KELOLAND News spoke to Conrad-Popova, Governor Kristi Noem has signed a bill into law banning divisive concepts from higher education training and orientations and an executive order banning divisive concepts from K-12 curriculum. Conrad-Popova is ‘deeply troubled’ by the legislation coming out of Pierre.
“It’s starting to impact what I’m allowed to teach; it’s starting to make access to funding for my research or access to resources for my research nearly impossible,” Conrad-Popova said. “It’s affecting the service that I give to the institution and the community.”
While the governor does not have a direct say in how the USD campus functions, Conrad says her oversight of the Board of Regents and influence on legislation does trickle down to the campus.
“Her politics, and the politics of whoever is in that office, shapes what is taught at all levels in the state,” Conrad said.
Unlike the law regarding higher education, the executive order banning CRT and divisive concepts from K-12 education is already in effect.
Last week in Lead-Deadwood, a ‘Safe Space’ sign in the elementary school was the focus of nearly two hours of debate over whether it was in violation of the order and should be allowed to remain. The board is proposing a policy that would be in line with the governor’s order of keeping ‘divisive concepts’ out of public schools.
Nathan Lukkes with the South Dakota Board of Regents told KELOLAND News that the board receives occasional complaints from both students and parents “on a wide spectrum of matters” and reviews each complaint accordingly.
Conrad said teachers at all levels of education have a level of power and influence over students and should be mindful of how they provide education in the classroom.
“Our job is to make all of our students feel honored, valued and respected,” Conrad-Popova said.
When it comes to history education, Conrad-Popova said she’s struggling to understand how teaching the nation’s history is controversial.
“I’ve tried reaching out and asking, ‘What is so divisive about the simple facts of our nation’s history?’” Conrad said. “And if you take all of the politics around CRT and all that stuff out of it, it’s really a conversation around, what are we teaching children?”
Conrad said as an educator, her goal is to enact positive change within the community. But these bills and orders silence her and prevent her from doing so.
“If I’m in a position where I am, literally my hands are tied, and all I can do is talk, then that’s not effective,” Conrad-Popova said. “Both my colleagues at the institution and people within the community are silenced by these kinds of bills.”