After educators weigh in, Newark schools set to get new textbooks that prioritize diversity

When Newark students return to school this fall, they’re likely to see brand-new books.

The district plans to spend $10 million to adopt new English, math, social studies, and science textbooks, according to the budget for next school year that the school board approved in March. The spending is meant to bring consistency to local classrooms and ensure that students are seeing instructional materials that reflect the district’s diversity.

More than 90 city educators spent multiple days recently reviewing textbooks and choosing the ones that students and teachers across Newark should use, A’Dorian Murray-Thomas told her fellow school board members at their meeting Tuesday.

“We really wanted to make sure there was a diverse contingent of educators present who would inform the decision on what textbooks were adopted,” Murray-Thomas said.

The teachers were led by a team of seasoned school administrators, including Darleen Gearhart, principal of Sussex Avenue School; David Scutari, principal of the Mount Vernon School; and Deputy Superintendent Gerald Fitzhugh II.

The main goal, Murray-Thomas said, was to ensure consistency across the district — a valuable arrangement in a city where students frequently change schools, and a significant departure from recent years, when principals were free to design their schools’ academic programs.

Earlier this year, Newark asked publishers to submit bids for the curriculum contracts. The review teams scrutinized the submitted options for their rigor, cultural relevance, and ease of use, then ranked the options. They also checked to make sure some materials would be available in multiple languages.

In math, the teachers chose HMH Into Mathematics, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for elementary and middle schools and Envision, from Pearson, for high school subjects. Both curriculums receive high scores for their content and ease of use from EdReports, a nonprofit organization that reviews curriculums.

In English, they chose HMH Into Reading for elementary schools and Into Literature for middle schools. Both curriculums, again from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, are so new that EdReports has not finished reviewing them.

School board members cheered the selection process, saying that the textbooks would ensure that students across the district are exposed to the same high-quality and culturally relevant instruction. Students will benefit, Asia Norton said, from “a continuum from [kindergarten] to first [grade] and first to second all the way to high school, versus having curriculum that is K to 5, then 6 to 8.”

One especially exciting aspect of the selected curriculums, Murray-Thomas said, is that they all prioritize diversity — rather than just the social studies or English textbooks, where it is more common to feature a range of voices and experiences.

“We saw that same diversity — color, races, stories — adopted even into the mathematics textbooks,” she said. “So we see that cultural relevance and really having the products that are reflective of our students isn’t restricted to one subject. This is something that should be across all subjects.”

The review and selection process came during the district’s first year under Superintendent Roger León, a former Newark Public Schools teacher and principal, who has been blunt in his assessment of the textbooks that schools currently use.

“Right now, my argument to you is that our English curriculum from kindergarten to 12th grade is horrible,” he said at a board meeting Saturday, adding that the teaching materials are partly to blame for the district’s “atrocious” academic performance.

He noted that his predecessors, state-appointed superintendents Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, gave principals wide latitude to shape their schools’ academic programs. That, he said, led to uneven quality across schools.

“The math in the elementary schools — we have every school doing whatever they want because this whole autonomy concept went buck wild,” he said.

León has also noted that the district does not have a social studies curriculum, and that civics and Newark’s history are not taught — all things he plans to change. He also promised to offer African and Latinx studies, which he said were part of the curriculum at University High School when he was principal.

León also said the district has failed to adhere to New Jersey’s Amistad law, passed in 2002, which requires schools to teach African-American history.

“Amistad is written in the legislation,” he said at a March meeting, “but if you try to find it in any of our curriculum, it is absent.”

The board is set to vote on the curriculum recommendations next week. León said on Tuesday that he hoped board members would sign off on what teachers want — something he said had not always happened before when the district sought advice from educators.

“Your vote on this item next week,” he told the board, “will send the message that when you ask teachers for input, you do something with it.”