Pinelands Regional School District Will Be Part of LGBTQ Curriculum Pilot Study

Program Will Start for Eighth-Graders This January
By Rick Mellerup | Nov 27, 2019

Little Egg Harbor — The Pinelands Regional School District is going to be making, or at least helping make, history. Gov. Phil Murphy is requiring all junior high and high school districts in New Jersey to incorporate a Students with Disabilities and LGBTQ curriculum including instruction in the political, economic and social contributions of such people in their class offerings by September 2020. But Pinelands is getting ahead of the requirement, introducing this curriculum – at least for eighth-graders – this winter.

Pinelands is one of only a dozen districts out of over 40 that applied to be accepted into a pilot program that will begin in the second semester this school year. As PRSD Superintendent of Schools Melissa McCooley told the board of education at its Nov. 13 meeting, being a pilot district will make Pinelands “part of educational history.”

“We will be part of the process from the very beginning,” she said.

McCooley told the board that being involved in the pilot program will help the district in several ways. It will be getting assistance from trained professionals from Garden State Equality, an advocacy group formed a decade-and-a-half ago advocating for LGBTQ students that will provide funding and marketing, and from Make It Better For Youth, a group formed by New Jersey educators – state-certified teachers currently teaching in New Jersey – who are developing the curriculum and will be working with the Pinelands district. A curriculum coach will be provided, at no cost to the district. Information sessions will be conducted with parents. Finally, the district will be eligible for certification as a “SAFE” (Safe, Affirmative, Fair and Equitable) district.

The new curriculum, said McCooley, doesn’t mean special classes in LGBTQ studies will be added.

“It is not a separate curriculum,” she said. “It’s taking what we currently teach and making sure that we’re representing all groups. We are building a strong foundation with this. It also helps us to adopt any type of instructional material that we may be missing. So if we’re teaching a specific time period or genre and we’re missing materials that may be inclusive of all types of students, they would help us to find those materials. It helps us to appreciate the significant contributions that all types of groups made, and it is teaching our students to be good citizens and respect all types of students. Lastly, it is helping parents and community members to be understanding and accepting of all types of groups.”

The curriculum will be included in all subjects, especially the relevant ones such as history and English, unlike other states that have basically limited it to social studies classes.

As Kimberly Clark, an assistant principal at the junior high who McCooley said has an “extensive background in the field” and who helped develop the state application, said, “we’re just adding perspective.”

Or as board member Kim Hanadel put it, “It almost seems like it’s kind of allowing them (students with disabilities and LGBTQ students) into history. Women were not allowed in history 75 years ago – I mean, Martha Washington was, like, it. We had to sort of go back and rewrite history.”

“It’s not adding lessons. It’s only enhancing and adding different perspective,” said Clark.

“The example that comes to my mind, although it’s very primary, is if you think of a Dick and Jane book,” added McCooley. “It represents one type of group or person. Now we are going to be teaching lessons that represent all types of people throughout history.”

Some people may be asking why such a curriculum is needed. The obvious answer is New Jersey is going to require it. But McCooley offered a slide presentation that gave other reasons as well.

A group called GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), which has championed LGBTQ issues in K-12 education since 1990, conducted a nationwide survey of LGBTQ students. It found 34.8 percent of these students had skipped at least one day of school because of not feeling safe at school. No less than 70 percent of the respondents reported they had experienced some sort of verbal harassment. An amazing 42 percent said they had considered dropping out of high school because of the environment.

McCooley stressed another part of the study during her presentation:

“I put this in bold because I feel it is applicable to our school district,” she said. “Many of these students in rural or small towns face more of a hostile climate because of the environment.”

The study also showed many LGBTQ students don’t report harassment to school staff because they think they won’t “get anywhere” or even fear they will face repercussions. They worry reporting problems could make the climate worse. And only 25 percent of LGBTQ students who had approached school staff with a harassment complaint said they actually received some type of assistance. Often they felt they were told to “just ignore it” or to “change their behavior.”

“And that’s not acceptable,” said McCooley. “All students should be able to go to staff for assistance with any type of issues they are having.”

A study, said the superintendent, showed LGBTQ students at districts with an integrated and inclusive curriculum “feel more safe at school because of that curriculum” and reported “a lot of the negative words and slurs were diminished just because they’re having an inclusive curriculum and students and staff were more accepting.”

And don’t think there aren’t LGBTQ students and their supporters at Pinelands. A club involved with such issues, instituted last year, meets once or twice a month and has attracted up to 30 students a meeting.

Clark added that being involved in the pilot study means the Pinelands district will have a “voice” in developing the eventual statewide curriculum.

“They are also looking for feedback from us,” she told the board.

Maybe, she said, part of the pilot curriculum would not be considered appropriate for Pinelands and wouldn’t be taught. Or maybe some of the curriculum might be tweaked to contextualize with community standards. The eventual state guidelines could be changed due to feedback from Pinelands.

There will be two initial training sessions for teachers and administrators, the first on Dec. 3. Board members may attend the sessions, and two members, Stephen Kubricki, who represents Little Egg Harbor on the BOE, and Hanadel, who represents Tuckerton, said they will attend at least the first one.

Community Objections,

Two No-Votes

When it came time for public comment on the proposal, only two members of the audience spoke. Both respectfully asked the BOE to reconsider joining the pilot program.

Peter Cardillo, a Little Egg Harbor parent of a PRSD student, worried that the district was too quick to join in the pilot. He said his research had determined that New Jersey would be only the second state to adopt such a curriculum, behind only California. So why was Pinelands jumping on board so quickly?

“What’s the hurry?” he asked. “Why jump the gun? Why volunteer our children for a pilot program on a sensitive issue that many residents will find objectionable?”

Cardillo was worried the curriculum would do more than note the contributions of LGBTQ citizens in history.

“Does this pilot curriculum inform, or does it also celebrate and perhaps indoctrinate? GSE (Garden State Equality) aggressively advocates for an LGBTQ ideology. So I suspect that GSE is interested in doing much more than merely informing. I do realize that it (the curriculum) is coming in 2020, but why rush?”

Instead of participating in the pilot program, Cardillo urged the BOE to form a committee comprised of parents, teachers and board members to come up with a curriculum that would both satisfy New Jersey’s requirements and community concerns.

Another LEH resident, Mike Dellaperute, who is also pastor at the Calvary Baptist Church, also hoped the BOE wouldn’t support the pilot program. Dellaperute said he had carefully examined GSE’s website and the organization’s proposed curriculum.

“Honestly, it contains some goals I think everyone can and should agree with, like the one on page five that states ‘the purpose of this program is to teach respect for people of various backgrounds and enable students to function as productive citizens.’ These are noble intentions.”

But, said the pastor, GSE presents some other “very questionable goals” on its website. He said GSE proudly supports a “post-marriage” environment (not only opposite sex marriage but same-sex, plural and arranged marriages).

Dellaperute said as a pastor he is “directly involved in starting and saving marriages. ... I don’t see how that (post-marriage) ideology will produce productive and respectful citizens. It’s more likely to serve to undermine the most ancient and sacred tradition governing human relationships.”

Like Cardillo, Dellaperute wanted a community committee to develop the district’s LGBTQ curriculum, not an “outside group that self-identifies as an advocacy group.”

In the end, the BOE supported the administration’s recommendation to be part of the pilot program.

Board President Susan Ernst and fellow LEH representatives Betti Anne McVey, A.J. Barchetto and Kubricki, along with Tuckerton’s Hanadel voted yes, while Eagleswood’s Karen Poklikuha and Bass River Township’s Thomas Williams Jr. voted against the pilot. Two board members who both represent Little Egg Harbor, Vice President Patricia Chambers and Christie Palladino, were absent. Ernst, Barchetto and Kubricki will not be on the board in the new year so would not have to face any potential backlash.

 McVey said she thought the district’s staff would receive more training opportunities by participating in the pilot instead of waiting until next September and added, “I think it is proactive to make sure you have a voice at the table and not just be waiting in the wings to see what happens.”

— Rick Mellerup

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