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Student Costumes Banned for First Time at This Fresno School’s Annual Colonial Day

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Children wore costumes at last year's Colonial Days at Manchester GATE Elementary in Fresno. (Facebook/Manchester GATE Elementary School)
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Camie Sorensen’s fifth-grade daughter was looking forward to donning a cap and apron and demonstrating candle making at her school’s annual Colonial Day event on Thursday.

But this year’s “living history” event at Fresno Unified’s Manchester GATE Elementary School will be historic for a different reason — students and parents were told on Tuesday that costumes aren’t allowed at this year’s Colonial Day.

Sorensen said she doesn’t completely understand why.

“I’m trying to spend today to figure out why is this happening,” she said Wednesday morning. “What is offensive about children dressing up? Why are they delivering it 30 hours before it starts? Why are we not getting more transparency in how the decision is being made?

“So those are the things that I’m trying to figure out. And also feeling frustrated that it’s just kind of a mandate, that parents aren’t part of the discussion.”

Sorensen said Wednesday morning she had asked for a phone call with Manchester’s principal to follow up on Tuesday’s “vague” email but had not made contact. She said her daughter related there might be a connection to an incident at another school “that involved slavery.”

Concerns Raised About Colonial Education

Fresno Unified spokeswoman Nikki Henry said the decision not to allow costumes on Thursday came as a result of “several” concerns raised by parents and staffers about such events at Manchester and other Fresno Unified schools.

“Our DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) department and School Leadership departments have been working collaboratively to review the learning benefits and the potential harm from these events,” Henry said. “That being said, a joint decision was made between Manchester GATE, School Leadership, and DEI to tweak the current ‘colonial days’ events at Manchester this year. Learning about the trades/occupations of that time and playing of old-fashioned games will continue, and the costume portion of the events has become a show and tell on Friday. To be clear, nothing was cancelled and no one person made the decision to tweak this year’s events.”

District instruction, curriculum, and diversity staffers will continue to develop activities that “continue the learning of American history while being inclusive and representative of our current student population,” she said.

Costumes Are Part of School’s Colonial Education

The tradition at Manchester GATE — GATE stands for gifted and talented — goes back at least 10 years and gives fifth-graders the chance to display what they’ve learned about colonial times in American. In addition to demonstrating the arts and crafts of the day like blacksmithing and candle making, the students play 200-year-old games outside like tenpins and rolling hoops with a stick.

A scene from Manchest GATE’s 2020 Colonial Day event. (Facebook/Manchester GATE Elementary School)

Parents also bring in colonial-era food for the students to feast on.

Last year the district promoted the school’s program in its daily video posting, with the following description: “With today’s highlight, Manchester GATE Elementary School’s 5th-grade students took their education a step further by fully immersing themselves in the lives of Americans during the Colonial Era. This involved costumes, sewing, dancing, and more! #FUSDFamily #AchievingOurGreatestPotentialFUSD”

Sorensen said the announcement to parents through a messaging system seemed abrupt as well as vague, and was very upsetting for her daughter, who had hoped to participate in costume in her Colonial Day program just as her older siblings had.

“Lots of tears on the 10-year-old’s part, because they’ve been planning this for so long,” Sorensen said.

Costumes Allowed Friday Instead of Thursday

Students will be allowed to wear their costumes to class on Friday as a concession for having them prohibited at Thursday’s Colonial Day program, Sorensen said, adding, “I just don’t understand the messaging.”

Dressing up as “European” colonists is not necessary for learning “nor inclusive or representative of our current student population,” Henry said. But students will still have the opportunity to show what they’ve learned about what colonists wore and about how the Manchester youngsters created their costumes at Friday’s show and tell, she said.

Some students also are talking about wearing their costumes to the school’s annual Barn Dance on Friday, where they will dance reels to music performed by Fresno folk musician and icon Evo Bluestein, Sorensen said.

Even grown-ups at Manchester have dressed up in colonial costumes, as this video posted last year to Facebook shows.

Nancy Price is a multimedia journalist for GV Wire. A longtime reporter and editor who has worked for newspapers in California, Florida, Alaska, Illinois and Kansas, Nancy joined GV Wire in July 2019. She previously worked as an assistant metro editor for 13 years at The Fresno Bee. Nancy earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her hobbies include singing with the Fresno Master Chorale and volunteering with Fresno Filmworks. You can reach Nancy at 559-492-4087 or Send an Email