NEPTUNE, N.J. – Twelve New Jersey schools will begin piloting a new LGBTQ-focused curriculum this month, the first wave of a requirement that will soon be mandated across the state.
The pilot sites to be announced by the state Tuesday – including schools in Hackensack, Morristown, Newark and Asbury Park – are intended to be proving grounds for new lessons in history, economics and even grammar designed to improve awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender contributions and issues. The instruction, approved by the state last year, will be a requirement for all of New Jersey's public schools starting in the fall.
“We want students to see themselves in the stories that are told,” said Ashley Chiappano, safe schools and community education manager for Garden State Equality, the advocacy group leading the pilot program. “We want to make sure they are getting accurate, appropriate and historically relevant information about the community and the strides that have been made.”
The law requires that middle and high school students learn about the social, political and economic contributions of LGBTQ people but leaves it up to local districts to determine how to teach those lessons. School boards must update standards in time for the 2020-21 school year.
New Jersey became the second state in the nation after California to require such lessons after Gov. Phil Murphy signed the measure into law Jan. 31. Supporters say the move reflects an inclusive history and promotes understanding; opponents decry it as 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,” said Shawn Hyland, director of advocacy for the Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey, a conservative Christian organization.
Hyland said he was concerned that the lessons would “normalize or promote certain desires and attractions that violate one’s religious and moral beliefs.”
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How will the LGBTQ lessons be taught?
Under the program, educators will get three to four lessons for each grade level and subject. The intent of the law is for material to be weaved across subjects rather than taught as a stand-alone history lesson, said advocates and legislators who supported it, including Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, one of the primary sponsors.
“We didn’t want this to be a heroes-and-holidays curriculum. We didn’t want there to be a lesson on just the historical contributions,” Chiappano said.
Among the topics are gay victims of the Holocaust, who were forced to wear pink triangles and whose stories have often been overlooked, according to a review of the proposed curriculum. Another lesson would include discussions about the memoir of a boy forced into gay "conversion therapy" and grammar lessons about using pronouns that reflect identity.
The curriculum is intended as a model for other schools and will eventually be available online for all schools, according to Garden State Equality.
Garden State Equality received 50 applications and chose schools that represent geographic and racial diversity, those that showed a strong interest and those with the greatest need for the lessons, the group said. Participants will get curriculum coaches, site visits and training. Those that applied but weren’t chosen will be given access to the curriculum online.
The schools joining the pilot include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Asbury Park; Forrestdale School in Rumson; the middle and high school programs at Haddon Heights Junior-Senior High School; Highland Park School; Millburn Middle School; Arts High School in Newark; and Pinelands Regional Junior High School in Tuckerton.
Three charter schools – public schools that are privately managed – are also participating: Bergen Arts and Science Charter School in Hackensack, which has a middle and high school; Charter Tech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point; and Unity Charter School in Morristown.
Support and criticism to the LGBTQ curriculum
The Bergen Arts and Science Charter School in Hackensack announced in June that it would be part of the program amid controversy after the school painted over a student’s LGBTQ mural at the request of the Catholic church that owned the building. At the time, school leaders said they wanted to show they were committed to inclusiveness.
“The curriculum test-pilot will be an opportunity for us to become a leader in this work, to create a model for other public schools. We’re proud to participate with Garden State Equality to do that,” Nihat Guvercin, chief executive officer of iLearn Schools, a charter management organization that operates Bergen Arts and Science, said at the time.
In Newark, school board member Reginald Bledsoe advocated for applying to the pilot program. Four local schools applied, and Newark Arts High School was chosen.
“God knows if I had the opportunity to learn a little more about myself, the sky would have been the limit for me,” Bledsoe said, adding that he identifies as a gay man. "It’s very important that all kids see themselves in what they are learning.”
The law has provoked strong reactions from supporters, who say it’s about respecting rights and teaching a full picture of history, and opponents, who say it will take away power from parents and may encourage kids to question their sexuality.
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. The petition asks the state to give parents the choice to opt their children out of lessons about LGBTQ history.
"This law violates the fundamental and constitutional rights of parents to direct the moral and educational upbringing of their children," the petition says. "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 law, as written, does not have an opt-out provision. Lawmakers and advocates who backed the legislation said it wasn't an option because the lessons are supposed to be integrated into New Jersey's curriculum throughout the year across subjects.
Under the law, each school board is expected to adopt policies, curriculum changes and textbooks aligned with the new standards. The state Department of Education will issue policy guidelines for local school boards outlining the steps they need to take.
Bledsoe said that he expects some pushback and that boards need to explain that the lessons are not about sex. "No one is teaching kids about sex, but more so teaching about contributions of LGBTQ figures," he said.
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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ schools test LGBTQ history lessons in class ahead of new law