On Jan. 7, when students returned to class after the holiday break, Garden State Equality, a New Jersey LGBTQ advocacy group, launched its LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum pilot program in twelve schools.
The groundbreaking program is one of only two in the country. Schools that applied but weren’t chosen will have access to the curriculum online.
In the 12 public schools, which are scattered throughout the state, including in Newark, Tuckerton, Asbury Park, Morristown and Haddon Heights, lesson plans developed and written by Garden State Equality in partnership with Make It Better for Youth will be utilized in a range of classes across several disciplines, not just history. The pilot program will continue until the end of the current school year. The pilot schools are a test run so that the curricula can be refined by the fall and to get a sense of students’ responsiveness. New Jersey teachers worked with Garden State Equality to devise 45 lesson plans.
Gov. Murphy signed LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum into law on Jan. 1, 2019, making New Jersey the second state in the nation to pass such a law, after California in 2011. Colorado also signed similar legislation into law in 2019. New Jersey is the first with interdisciplinary content. In September, New Jersey’s law will go into effect statewide for the 2020-21 school year in all public schools. Every middle and high school in the state will begin integrating these topics into classrooms, and Garden State Equality will be offering every district across New Jersey its curriculum at no cost.
The law requires school boards to include instruction and adopt instructional materials that portray the political, economic and social contributions of LGBTQ people across all content areas for middle and high school students by the next school year.
“Our youth deserve to see themselves reflected in the classroom, and we know the work we’re doing is going to change the lives of LGBTQ students for the better by reducing bullying,” said Ashley Chiappano, safe schools & community education manager for Garden State Equality. “The robust curriculum Garden State Equality has developed will ensure that the LGBTQ community’s contributions throughout history are not erased and serve to inspire the next generation.”
Garden State Equality secured $185,000 in grant funding from the Braitmayer Foundation and PSEG Foundation (disbursed over two years beginning in 2019) to support its curriculum development. This was the first time the Braitmayer Foundation awarded a grant to an LGBTQ organization.
“Garden State Equality has been working with education experts over the last year to develop this curriculum in line with New Jersey’s core content standards,” said Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality. “When our study with Stockton University concludes at the end of the pilot program, we trust the results will unequivocally show that inclusive curriculum results in safer schools and smarter students.”
Brian McGuire, the principal for the Charter Tech High School for the Performing Arts in Atlantic County, one of the pilot schools, explained how integral the curriculum is for students.
“We do a little bit, but we don’t do enough,” said McGuire. “We applied to continue our mission of being inclusive of all kids.”
McGuire said, “We call our students artists. Our artists know what we celebrate diversity, and that’s what I’m most proud of for our school, and we want to make sure that we do everything we can to be involved and continue on that mission.”
Chiappano said that the expansive aspect of the curriculum was critical to this being more than history, but understanding that inclusivity cuts across all disciplines. Language that is traditionally heteronormative would be mixed with queer-friendly language, as in math word problems that might say a husband and husband instead of a husband and wife. Students would be exposed to alternative representations in their everyday classes, broadening their impressions of LGBTQ people.
“In our math and science, it’s really making sure that we’re talking about things like using inclusive language when teaching those math and science lessons,” says Chiappano. “In history and social studies, talking about the movement in history, but more importantly, talking about how laws have changed, how things have changed, not only in our state but across the country.”
Bullying of LGBTQ youth in schools is a problem across all strata — economic and social. The Centers for Disease Control reports that in 2017, 33 percent of LGBTQ students had been bullied at school — more than twice what heterosexual peers experienced.
Opponents have said the new law is a violation of religious and parental freedom. “We’re all human and need to respect each other, but there’s a religious view that sexuality doesn’t define us,” Shawn Hyland, director of advocacy for the Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey, a conservative Christian organization, told NorthJersey.com.
The Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey has collected more than 3,500 signatures on a petition calling the law “a violation of religious liberties that forces sexual ideology” onto children and demanding an “opt-out” clause. There is no such provision in the law.
“This law violates the fundamental and constitutional rights of parents to direct the moral and educational upbringing of their children,” the petition states. “It was written with no protections for families — families cannot opt their child out of the content for any reason, not even if they have religious or moral objections!”
The curriculum is unrelated to sexuality, and it is expected that parents with concerns will adjust as the semester unfolds. Each site will host a parental meeting to discuss the curriculum with parents and students.