Local and State Efforts to Change Connecticut’s Public School Curriculum Inch Forward

If House Bill 6619 passes, Connecticut will have a new curriculum available by 2023 for public school students from kindergarten through 8th grade.

The bill would combine several previously proposed bills that included LGBTQ+ studies and Native American studies, and would add Asian Pacific American studies, climate change, personal financial management and financial literacy, and military service and experience of American veterans.

The legislation follows protests last year that in part called for substantial changes to school curricula, and a 2019 law requiring all public schools to offer Black and Latino Studies electives. 

“Recent civil and political discourse has demonstrated that we need to be more intentional about reaching the nuances of certain subjects that have historically been overlooked or left out of school textbooks,” said State Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester. “Even though Connecticut has been a national leader in recent curriculum changes, we need to keep on pushing in order to validate the experiences of all historically underrepresented groups.” 

Unlike the Black and Latino Studies bill that required all districts to offer a full-year course, this bill would mandate the development of a complete curriculum that all districts will have the option of implementing.

“Each and every legislative session that I’ve witnessed, legislators come forward with a particular cause to be included in the curriculum,” said Frances Rabinowitz, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. “If there were a model curriculum we would know when to teach it and how.”

If the bill passes, Connecticut would be the fourth state — after New Jersey, California and Illinois — with a curriculum that includes LGBTQ+ studies. 

“It is my hope that by the end of this unit students will have a fundamental understanding of the history of the LGBTQ movement, understand the bullying-bystander effect, engage in a class discussion about diversity and tolerance,” said John Board, chair of New Britain Pride, a nonpartisan advocacy organization supporting the LGBTQ+ community. 

To others, the bill poses an unwelcome emphasis on subjects that are currently taught as part of health education, or by parents at home.

“As faith leaders representing a diverse community, we are committed to safeguarding the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the youth in our city, especially for our most vulnerable students,” said Abraham Hernandez, executive director of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and the director of the Connecticut chapter. “Therefore, we believe youth should be given access to curriculum that has been proven to produce the best outcomes for them. We also believe that the curriculum chosen should acknowledge and support the role of parents as the primary educators of their children on this very personal subject.” 

For educators and administrators, a state-provided complete curriculum would help guide the process of teaching new topics. 

“A model curriculum provided by the state could be a jumping off point for all school districts to tackle these difficult subjects,” Rabinowitz said. “In that curriculum you could include all pieces that need to be included…contributions of literature, music and math. Why have everyone reinvent the wheel?”

Although the state’s Department of Education supports the bill’s intention, Acting Commissioner of Education Charlene Russell-Tucker warned that the proposed timeline for implementation is too quick.

“We are in support of the goals of this bill and believe that a K-8 model curriculum is the standard that we should be working toward. However, the Department cannot support this proposal as written given the proposed timelines, current staff capacity, budget constraints, and other concerns,” Russell-Tucker said in submitted testimony. “As we have learned from the African American/Black and Puerto Rican/Latino curriculum writing experience, it takes more than 1.5 years to meaningfully accomplish the work for a single grade-level course, and this legislation requires multiple grades, subjects, and topics.” 

Local efforts already underway  

Even if the bill does not pass, several school districts have already included new material with an emphasis on race and gender in their curriculum. 

Guilford Public Schools, for example, have partnered with Donald Siler, an associate professor of education at the University of St. Joseph, to implement more “culturally sensitive teaching methods in the classroom.” 

Siler explained at a January board of education meeting that “it starts with the work of identity and recognizing that identity is a varied aspect of life.”

Siler is helping teachers implement New York University’s culturally responsive curriculum, which emphasizes creating a welcoming and affirming environment, high expectations and rigorous instruction, inclusive curriculum and assessment and ongoing professional learning. 

“I’m trying to get them to start small…getting them to think about what they are doing in their classrooms … and how to incorporate culture into the classroom,” Siler said.

Starting small means adding more books, art or other materials that provide different points of view than the materials currently used. 

Lyme-Old Lyme and Region 4, which serves the towns of Chester, Deep River and Essex, have formed racial equity teams or committees. Brian White, superintendent of Region 4 schools, explained that they would be evaluating “district practices pertaining to school climate and our curriculum in all grades k-12.”

In Lyme-Old Lyme schools, a racial equity team made up of teachers and other staff is receiving training from the State Education Resource Center, a quasi-public agency established by the legislature, to help incorporate materials similar to those recommended by Siler in Guilford.

“Many classrooms or departments have started the informal process of adding a classroom library or informal work that touches on the topic,” said Michelle Dean, director of curriculum for Lyme-Old Lyme Schools. “Our goal is not to replace curriculum, but to enhance it.” 

Dean said that new material would be incorporated across all subject areas and grade levels to better address the contributions of people belonging to minority populations.

Although not all districts have the budget and staff to implement such changes — and the Department of Education is unlikely to have a curriculum ready in the near future — the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, is already working to make resources available to schools across Connecticut.

“We are looking at resources, working toward equity and all working toward very tangible pieces that people can see,” Rabinowitz said.

Asked what “working toward equity” in the classroom would mean, especially at the elementary school level, Rabinowitz said that “we want the youngest students reading books where the characters look like them … it is important that as young as kindergarten when you talk about art and music to show who the author or composer is and make sure to include people of color and LGBTQ as well.” 

Concerns raised

Introducing these changes across the curriculum would make it more difficult for parents to opt their children out of instruction on the new material — parents typically have the ability, depending on the district, to opt out of a particular lesson or course.

Hernandez warned that “many parents may find these lessons objectionable and not at all age appropriate.”

Rabinowitz said she has prepared superintendents for discussions with families that may object to certain material. “I tell them to explain why it is important, why it is important for your child that is going to grow up in a world that is diverse,” she said. “[Children] will be successful if they understand more about all different kinds of people.”

These concerns have led some parents, even before this legislation, to homeschool their children. “I didn’t want them raised by two separate cultures,” said Erika Ahern, a mother of six and educator in the Bridgeport Diocese. “I didn’t want my kids arguing with the two different sets of adults in their lives.” But Ahern said that this same debate about including more diverse materials is also taking place in the homeschool community. 

“There is a very sincere discussion amongst the Catholic and Christian homeschool parents going on,” she said. “As a homeschool mom it is a good reflection, how can we improve, add or enhance what we are teaching.”

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