Brandywine graduates create group to gather support for students, educators

Published 12:04 pm Tuesday, January 31, 2023

NILES CHARTER TOWNSHIP — Twin siblings Ambrosia Neldon and Jasmine LaBine have fond memories of attending Brandywine Community Schools Board of Education meetings as eager students and jotting down notes as decisions were made. 

Years later, the 2009 Brandywine graduates are using skills forged within the walls of Brandywine classrooms to keep the Bobcat community engaged and involved in the district’s policy-making process.

Neldon, a marketing and communications manager, and LaBine, instructor of communication at both Western Michigan University and Albion College, formed Brandywine Alumni and Educators for Educational Freedom, a group aiming to show support for educators, oppose censorship of books, curriculum, and communication and protect the future of the school district.

The group was formed prior to the district’s Jan. 23 Board of Education meeting, where the newly-configured board established several new committees on curriculum, sex ed., sexually explicit materials and more. Neldon, LaBine and others in the Brandywine community are concerned that the new committees could result in drastic changes to the education Brandywine students receive.

“We just want to make sure everybody stays engaged,” Neldon said. “We don’t want to have another board meeting where just four or five people show up. We want to keep showing them that there is a large portion of the community that believes in what we’re talking about and that we will not give up this fight until our students are heard.”

More than 450 members have joined the Facebook group since its creation on Jan. 20. Neldon and LaBine were overwhelmed by the community’s participation in the meeting, which saw more than 150 people attend. 

“It was humbling,” Neldon said. “I’ve never been more proud to be a Bobcat. Even in the face of very large contention, many people showed up and spoke out.”

“I was worried at first because I didn’t want this to be something we had to take on ourselves but I am fully confident that there is a strong presence in this community that is willing to speak up,” LaBine added. “Trying to make sure we all have actions to work together and keep moving forward is the role I see us playing but I have no doubt that there will be plenty of people to put the work in.”
While Neldon and LaBine are not opposed to the formation of inclusive committees, they are concerned about the possibility of exclusive conversations and decision making taking place behind closed doors during committee meetings, against the Open Meetings Act.

“We want to make sure that all who want a seat at the table are given a right to have a seat at the table and that they’re able to have a discussion and hopefully meet some middle ground,” Neldon said. 

From former Brandywine Superintendent John Jarpe to Brandywine English Teacher Debbie Carew reading a letter on behalf of Brandywine alumna and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Diane Seuss, several students, teachers and community members voiced their opinions during the Jan. 23 meeting. 

“It was encouraging and moving to see not only alumni but current students getting up to speak,” Neldon said. “It really shows there are Bobcats doing great things all over the world and that’s because of the way that they’ve been taught up to this point. Incremental changes should be made rather than these sweeping changes to meet an agenda of a group that doesn’t fully represent the community.”

Neldon said that BAEEF has brought together community members from all sides of the political spectrum who are united in their desire to protect the district they love.

“There are folks that have historically represented both political parties and have conservative beliefs that are still very vocal against the actions being taken,” Neldon said. “I think it’s promising to see that there already seems to be a spirit of community and collaboration amongst the group that we have formed. 

Neldon and LaBine hope that the community can find common ground with the school board going forward.

“At this point, it’s not about us against them; it’s about bringing attention to where it needs to be,” she said. “It is truly my hope that we’re able to find common ground and that we’re able to set a culture together where we never have to have a meeting like we had Monday night ever again.”

“That’s the spirit of what we’re looking at,” LaBine added. “We don’t want to limit anyone’s first amendment rights to speak up. We don’t want our kids’ first amendment rights to be limited in terms of what we’re reading or what we’re learning at school. It’s going to be about coming together and trying to come up with some solutions that can represent the community and not just a few people.”