After controversy, NJ school embraces LGBTQ-inclusive studies

After controversy, NJ school embraces LGBTQ-inclusive studies

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A New Jersey charter school has volunteered to pilot the state’s upcoming LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum after a controversy last month resulting from covering up a student’s Pride mural at the request of its Catholic-church landlord.

Bergen Arts and Science Charter High School, in Hackensack, will join about 10 other public schools in testing the curriculum, which spans all subjects for grades five-12, ahead of the state-mandated fall 2020 launch.

The pilot will run January to June in grades five, eight, 10 and 12, said Ashley Chiappano, safe schools and community outreach manager at Garden State Equality, which is managing the initiative.

School officials elected to participate in the pilot after obliging the Holy Trinity Church of Hackensack’s request to cover up a student’s LGBTQ-positive art project in the school hallway. The mural depicted a rainbow heart and male and female gender symbols.

Chiappano facilitated the June 7 discussion between the school faculty and students where administrators volunteered for the pilot.

“We can’t undo what was done, but we can help the school make better decisions around how to create a truly inclusive school environment where students’ rights are not being violated,” she said.

School administrators could not be reached for comment.

The curriculum will apply to all classes, including health, history, language arts and STEM courses, said Chiappano. It also will emphasize LGBTQ advocates of color who have championed for queer civil rights.

“We don’t want to limit this to a white-washed view of history,” she noted. “We want to make sure that we’re talking about the experiences of women and queer people of color and the folks that have really trailblazed through this movement and have not been documented in places that schools would utilize historically.”

A team of New Jersey educators, curriculum writers, gay-straight alliance advisers and other LGBTQ representatives will use $185,000 of the grant from the Braitmayer and PSEG foundations to develop the curriculum over a two-year period. A youth advisory board composed of students from participating pilot schools will provide feedback at the trial’s end, Chiappano said.

The 16-year-old rising senior who painted the now-covered Pride mural will sit on the board.

A yet-to-be-announced state university will analyze data from before and after surveys completed by students and teachers in pilot classes to evaluate the program’s efficacy.

Local school boards will be required to develop and implement the curriculum when the law goes into effect, but the pilot curriculum will be available for free once it’s completed, Chiappano said in a statement, adding “curriculum coaches” will be available to train teachers and oversee implementation. 

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in January signed the law mandating the LGBTQ-inclusive studies. The law “requires boards of education to include instruction and adopt instructional materials that accurately portray political, economic and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”

The legislation made New Jersey only the second state to require schools to teach LGBTQ history, following in the footsteps of California’s 2011 FAIR Education Act.

“Students will see themselves in the lessons that they’re taught,” Chiappano said. “The bottom line here is that being who you are is one of the most important things you could do. Getting an education where you or how you identify is talked about in a positive and affirming way so that you can focus on learning is so, so important.”


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