As part of their training on a new LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, educators from across New Jersey watched a video about a transgender boy’s first days at school after his transition. Some teachers in attendance wiped away tears as they listened to how the school’s support affected his journey. 

“To just know that that school is there as an organization and an institution to hold him up and support him, you can’t ask for more than that — it’s huge,” the boy’s mother, Grace, said in the video, produced by Garden State Equality, which developed the curriculum over the past two years. 

Twelve schools in New Jersey, including Newark’s Arts High School, are preparing to include a new LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum in their classrooms this semester. And this week, Garden State Equality, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, hosted a training session for those pilot participants at Union County College. 

The new curriculum comes on the heels of a 2019 state law requiring instruction that accurately represents the “political, economic, and social contributions of people with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” 

New Jersey is the second state in the nation to have such a requirement, following California in 2011. Colorado and Illinois have since passed similar laws. 

The legal requirement for New Jersey middle and high schools officially begins in fall 2020, but Garden State Equality this week launched the pilot to introduce the new curriculum in select New Jersey classrooms. It includes grammar lessons about pronouns, discussions about the gay victims of the Holocaust, and information about the 2003 murder of Newarker Sakia Gunn, a lesbian whose death was deemed a hate crime. 

During the pilot phase, researchers from Stockton University will evaluate the curriculum’s impact, and their findings will help inform a final version of this curriculum, which will be launched this summer. 

“This is not a matter of talking about ‘heroes and holidays,’ but talking about this community and using the language that students are already using in lessons every day,” said Ashley Chiappano, safe schools and community education manager for Garden State Equality. 

Chiappano said the team is working to ensure the lessons are “intersectional,” meaning that it will address overlapping identities in relation to discrimination. “We do not want pieces of the LGBTQ community to be dismissed and not highlighted,” she said. 

Over 50 New Jersey schools — including Newark’s Science Park and East Side high schools — applied to take part in the pilot, with the research team ultimately selecting ones that were geographically and racially diverse, demonstrated the most motivation to foster an LGBTQ-inclusive environment, and had the greatest need. Some schools that applied but weren’t chosen will have online access to the curriculum this year but not to the curriculum coaches, site visits, and additional training the pilot schools will receive.

The law requires that inclusive curriculum is taught across subjects and students learn about the social, political, and economic contributions of LGBTQ individuals, but it’s up to local districts to determine how to comply and which lessons to teach. (Not everyone is on board with the new mandate, though, and some Evangelical Christian parents have argued that LGBTQ-inclusive studies go against their religious beliefs.)

A 2017 national survey found that schools with inclusive curriculum had fewer students making anti-LGBTQ remarks, and LGBTQ students in those schools were more likely to come to school and felt safer. Reports of harassment and intimidation of LGBTQ students are relatively high in New Jersey, despite strong bullying laws.

Inclusive education isn’t new to some Newark classrooms, but this will be the first time there’s a curriculum to help teachers infuse LGBTQ history in their classrooms. LGBTQ history was briefly taught by select teachers in 2017 after the high-profile assault of a transgender student at East Side High School and an advisory resolution passed by the board of education calling for more inclusive curriculums and safe spaces for LGBTQ students.

Arts High School teacher Melissa Silva, who attended the Jan. 7 training, has already been including LGBTQ topics in her women’s studies class, but she said this curriculum will provide her with more direction and will “legitimize” these topics for students. 

“I’m learning that this isn’t a new addition but an infusion into what we’re already doing,” she said. “After seeing it taught in a classroom, students will believe that it’s worthy of discussion. 

She added that Arts High School is an ideal place to pilot the program because “it’s been a safe haven for LGBTQ students in Newark.” 

Arts High School humanities department chair Doretta Sockwell said she hopes the new curriculum will empower students, noting: “Representation is key. To see yourself reflected in curriculum, it does something psychologically.”

Though she said there was some initial skepticism among Arts High School teachers, Sockwell noted that after the training, many were enthusiastic about the curriculum. Now the Arts administrative team has to decide on how to implement the curriculum.

“We want it to be authentic,” she said. “It needs to be fluid and purposeful.”

At the training, administrators and educators attended breakout sessions where they discussed the positive effects of inclusive education on youth mental health and attendance, what sports teams non-binary students should be allowed to play on, and why inclusive curriculum should include more than just “firsts” or “heroes and holidays.” 

School board member Reginald Bledsoe, who is gay, has been involved with the effort to roll out inclusive curriculum district-wide Newark before fall 2020. “It’s about supporting kids in an equitable way and allowing them to see themselves in their curriculum,” he said.

The curriculum’s implementation “reminds me that hard work does pay off,” he said. 

Garden State Equality formally announced the schools participating in the pilot program on Tuesday. In addition to Arts High School, the selected schools are 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, Pinelands Regional Junior High School in Tuckerton, the middle and high school programs at Bergen Arts and Science Charter School in Hackensack, Charter Tech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point, and Unity Charter School in Morristown. Parent information sessions will be hosted at each school.

Though it has received some criticism, the law mandating LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum does not have an opt-out provision for schools or students. Educators across the state will be able to access the Garden State Equality curriculum free of charge online this summer.