New Jersey’s new curriculum law could put LGBTQ+ issues back into focus for Newark schools

Two years after a pilot program to teach LGBTQ+ history in Newark schools stalled, a new inclusive curriculum could be back in city classrooms as soon as next fall. 

The change, which New Jersey law newly requires, is partially thanks to the determination of Newark Board of Education member and local gay rights advocate Reggie Bledsoe.

New Jersey lawmakers earlier this year passed a law requiring schools to offer instruction that accurately represents the “political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” The state became the second in the nation to have such a requirement; California enacted one in 2011, and Colorado passed a similar law this spring.

The legal requirement for New Jersey middle and high schools begins in the fall of 2020, but the goal isn’t new for the Newark Board of Education, and especially not for Bledsoe.

“LGBTQ+ people exist in every city, every state, every country,” he said. “LGBTQ+ kids in Newark have the right to see themselves represented in the curriculum they’re learning.”

Two years ago, citing dismal statistics about the experiences of LGBTQ+ students at their schools, the board passed a resolution calling for policies that provided safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students to learn, including an inclusive curriculum, changes to health education, and allowing students to use their preferred pronouns. 

The resolution — which passed a week before a high-profile assault of a transgender student at East Side High School — was only advisory, as the city’s schools were under state control at the time.

Still, after some discussion and development, some Newark teachers agreed to try teaching about local LGBTQ+ figures in their courses. LGBTQ+ history was briefly taught in a select few classrooms in 2017, including Al Moussab’s Newark history class at East Side in fall 2017. 

“Students really enjoyed it,” he said. “They played a significant role in the development of history in Newark, and it’s important for all students to understand that history because we need to move past this language of tolerance and realize that we are all connected in the struggle.”

The following year, Newark took additional strides to support LGBTQ+ students. The district launched a series of initiatives and programming to celebrate LGBTQ+ students, assisted with a grant from the Southern Poverty Law Center; training about LGBTQ+ issues for staff in Newark schools; and events for LGBTQ+ students and their allies to connect. 

But the classes ended and the other initiatives slowed as the district began to focus on the transition to local control. LGBTQ+ students were not mentioned in current Newark Superintendent Roger León’s recently released district plan for the upcoming school year.

Still, Bledsoe, who helped spearhead the 2017 resolution, said protecting LGBTQ+ students has remained one of his top priorities — and that he “hopes and assumes” it’s one of León’s “top five priorities,” as well.

Newark board member Reginald Bledsoe, right, attended Newark’s Pride celebration in July. (Twitter/@Mr_Bledsoe)

“Every other day, I speak with the superintendent about it, and he’s assured me it’s going to be a priority,” Bledsoe said. “I’m not going to let anyone forget about this and will not let this go away. I will make this important to [León], by any means.”

With the results of the board’s previous resolution, Bledsoe has high hopes that Newark can roll out an inclusive curriculum before the state’s fall 2020 deadline. He said the district could convene focus groups to get local parents on board with the changes, which elsewhere in the state have elicited small-scale protests and criticism from religious conservatives who say schools should not teach about LGBTQ issues. 

“If there is pushback, we will expect and hope that parents would seek support and understanding of the policy and law in its entirety,” he said. “Inclusive curriculum is going to be the law of the land. It’s better we have the conversations now. We get it — it’s a sensitive topic.”

KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy principal Sean Stevens said that, as a gay man, he often tries to lead “from his identity,” but it’s an identity he’s only recently come to terms with. He said he couldn’t imagine an LGBTQ+ curriculum being supported while he was a student, but said it’s another step to making sure everyone feels welcome at school.

Still, he said, he is moving cautiously as he prepares for his school to comply with the law. “This curriculum adds on to the learning component, but it’s so nuanced and delicate and no one wants to get it wrong,” he said.

Support for rolling out changes could help them happen more readily, he said. 

“If we have the resources, it will be much easier,” he said. “With nothing, we’re just shooting in the dark.”

Some of that support could come from queer advocacy and education organization Garden State Equality, which is currently looking for people to write a version of the curriculum to pilot within individual grades at about 12 schools in New Jersey starting in January 2020. New Jersey’s Department of Education hasn’t yet developed a plan to help schools comply with the new curriculum law, so the group is creating the curriculum of its own volition.

“We know that developing curriculum is expensive and resource-intensive, and we want to make this as easy as possible to implement,” said Jon Oliveira, the group’s director of communications and membership.

New Jersey’s law allows for teaching about LGBTQ+ issues across subjects, not just in history or social studies classes, so Garden State Equality is tackling the challenge of developing curriculum that can be taught in multiple middle and high school courses. The group plans to have coaches work with the districts and teachers using the curriculum, and also to study its effectiveness. 

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. Even though New Jersey’s bullying laws are some of the strongest in the country, reports of harassment and intimidation of LGBTQ+ students are still relatively high. To combat the statistics, Oliveira said the culture has to change.

“We really see the inclusive curriculum law as a step toward doing that,” he said. “It can’t just be, ‘Hey, it’s Pride Month.’ Make this a part of schools and integrate it throughout existing curriculum.”

Schools can apply until October to participate in Garden State Equality’s pilot. A Hackensack school will be part of the pilot program, but no other schools have so far been confirmed. A school board member there said she was “disgusted” by the new curriculum law.

Schools in Newark have yet to apply, according to Oliveira, but he hopes they do.

“As a Newarker, I’d love to see it in Newark,” he said. 

Bledsoe, who still lives in the same Newark neighborhood he grew up in and identifies as gay, said an inclusive curriculum would changed his life if it had been provided to him as a Newark student. 

“If kids don’t understand something, they’re more likely to attack it,” he said. “I was the victim of teasing sometimes.”

Last month, almost two years after transgender student Kylie Perez was attacked at East Side, the school unveiled a rainbow-colored “pride” flag in its school auditorium. Rising East Side senior Yannick DeSouza said that as a gay student, he has observed a growing culture of tolerance and inclusivity. Insensitive jokes formerly told in the hallways and classrooms are no longer acceptable and are taken more seriously, he said. But he said he is excited about the prospect of students there learning more about Newark’s LGBTQ+ history.

Growing up in the city, DeSouza said he was shocked to discover that transgender gay rights advocate Marsha P. Johnson, who played a major role in the Stonewall Inn riots, was from nearby Elizabeth, New Jersey. DeSouza will be graduating next year, so he will likely miss the inclusive curriculum, but he’s glad that students, no matter how they identify, will be able to learn about figures like Johnson in school.

“I’m OK with knowing that the class of 2021 is going to learn about this,” he said. “I just feel like this is supposed to happen.”