In June, the Connecticut Department of Education released a new framework for health education – Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child – in keeping with the most popular buzzword among educators over the past few years: social emotional learning.
“The most critical part of this is that there is much more emphasis on education of the whole child,” said John Frassinelli, division director at the Department of Education’s Bureau of Health, Nutrition, Family Services and Adult Education. “It’s woven in alignment with the social emotional learning standards.”
According to Frassinelli, the new framework places a greater emphasis on teaching self-awareness, decision-making, respectful behavior and skill-based learning.
“We want to make sure students are learning lifelong, healthy skills,” Frassinelli said. “Health education skills, goal setting skills, how to practice healthy behaviors… we want them to learn skills that will carry them forward.”
The new framework will also help ensure that local districts are better aligned with state standards, according to school officials interviewed by CT Examiner. The last time the framework was updated was in 2006.
“We will be using the checklist to confirm that we are aligned to the standards,” said Michelle Dean, director of curriculum for Lyme-Old Lyme Schools. “In terms of what we need to change … we are going to have to be very intentional with social, emotional frameworks in health and physical education.”
A new comprehensive curriculum
In January, 2023 – now just a year away – the State of Connecticut will also release a new, comprehensive curriculum for public school students in kindergarten until 8th grade, that is similarly focused on educating the “whole child” in addition to conventional subject matter.
“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 during discussion on the bill in March. “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.”
House Bill 6619, which passed in July of 2021, mandated the creation of this coming curriculum to include “Native American studies, Asian Pacific American studies, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and other sexual orientations and gender identities studies, climate change, personal financial management and financial literacy, and military service and experience of American veterans.”
According to Dean, the model curriculum will make incorporating these new required components easier as all of the development will not fall to the local districts.
“We are currently in the throes of development,” said Irene Parisi, the chief academic officer at the Department of Education. “Our hope is that more of the skills students develop are lifelong.”
That emphasis on teaching beyond the confines of traditional school subjects, said State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, is what has sparked controversy about the curriculum changes.
“Most of the controversy today in education and the discussion around all of these topics is predicated upon the role and responsibility of the school versus the family,” Howard said.
Sex, gender, nutrition, finances are subjects usually left to parents, but as Howard pointed out, not all parents fulfill this role.
“There are kids in every school district that don’t get this kind of parenting at home,” he said. “So, school districts are saying we will be the parents.”
But for parents who do want to teach these topics at home – because for many these subjects are inseparable from their morality, values or religion – the new framework and curriculum, because it begins in kindergarten, is a concern, said Howard.
“The biggest issue that I’m hearing from constituents is that it’s not age appropriate,” said Howard, pointing out that children in elementary school are not typically able or encouraged to debate their teachers.
“A kid walks into the classroom and whatever the teacher says, that’s golden, and that’s it. Debate and discussion are not appropriate at that young of an age,” Howard said. “If the goal is to teach kids to be kind and inclusive there are 100 ways to do that without this. To approach sexuality and gender identity so directly at such a young age … it’s going to confuse them.”
Unlike the state’s health curriculum, however, local districts may opt out of the new comprehensive curriculum for kindergarten to 8th grade, and instead create their own curriculum, buy a curriculum or use state-created classroom materials.
Connecticut only requires that local schools meet the content requirements outlined by the state legislature.
“They are required to teach the standards,” said Parisi, “not to use this new curriculum.”
But according to Roy Steitsinger, the superintendent of Preston Public Schools, local parents can still have a say in shaping the curriculum.
“It’s really important for community members to understand that there is time to react and interact with the proposal,” said Steitsinger.
If parents are concerned, Howard said, this is the time to get involved with your local Board of Education.
“Now because this stuff is happening, parents are getting involved. Hopefully it engages them,” said Howard, who also cautioned that it’s the legislature, not the local district, that should be the target of any anger or concern.
“I’m telling parents to not take it out on the teachers, take it out on the state,” Howard said. “If parents get involved, I think there is hope for changing it to make it more appropriate … It’s time that we start to shift the responsibility back to parents.”
As in the case of many other subjects taught in school, parents can opt their children out of portions of the health education framework and the new comprehensive curriculum.
But according to teachers and administrators, opting out is not as simple as it sounds.
“It’s very tricky to navigate especially in a health classroom when a lot of the teaching is conversation based,” Dean said. “It doesn’t have the demarcation line of ‘now we are done with that subject.’”
According to Dean, schools may cluster content that is more controversial among some parents, including LGBTQ materials, so that parents can opt out and their children will only miss a few classes, rather than repeatedly interruptions throughout the year.
Stephen Redes, a former health education teacher in the Clinton Public Schools, said that proper training in the health instruction, and a solid curriculum, will help teachers covering more sensitive subjects.
“When talking about sensitive subjects I could always re-route it if I needed to, but this becomes difficult when people are not trained appropriately or they are not following a curriculum,” Redes said.
Many districts, including Stonington, are revisiting their procedures in anticipation of an increase in the number of parents opting their children out of certain instruction. In its current form, Dean explained, very few students are ever opted out of any part of the curriculum.
But none of this is entirely new for Connecticut schools, according to Redes, who recalled a similar debate when AIDS education was first mandated in Connecticut public schools.