STAFFORD – School districts throughout New Jersey took advantage of “home rule” in fulfilling the state’s latest curriculum requirements. Some consider Stafford’s choices as particularly innovative.
The local district has opted to assign some of the more controversial materials as take-home lessons. Additionally, Stafford Schools will leave it to the Southern Regional Middle School – a different district – to take on some of the more sensitive subjects that need to covered in grades 6-8.
The New Jersey’s Department of Education calls its student learning standards “a blueprint for curriculum development, instruction, and assessment.” All subjects have been updated for children enrolled in K-12 public schools. The Comprehensive Health and Physical Education were controversial for the portions that oversee sex ed, a relatively small part of a 66-page document found here: nj.gov/education/cccs/2020/2020%20NJSLS-CHPE.pdf.
“If we did not adopt and pass these standards, the district would be in violation,” said Stafford Superintendent George Chidiac. “We could be subject to loss of state funding, which could result in large class sizes, loss of programs, our free preschool program, enrichment programs and cutting staff.
“What is in our control as a district is to control the resources and how we teach them,” Chidiac continued.
According to the Superintendent, the first focus was on teaching students things on an age appropriate level. Chiadic used math as an example, saying that second graders are taught basic math rather than algebra.
Parents had the opportunity to opt out of the new curriculum and were assured their children would not be learning anything about critical race theory. Critical race theory does not fall under any state mandates. Nonetheless, some families have expressed concerns that schools intend to include it in their curriculum.
At a special meeting late last month, Stephanie Bush, the district’s Director of Curriculum, Instruction & Planning, presented the details of the new curriculum.
Bush first shared an important lesson she recalled learning from Stafford Township School District’s retired personnel director, Barbara D’Apuzzo.
“She used to always say if we can pass the red face test with the state,” shared Bush. “We’re going to be okay.”
Bush said social media posts resulted in several misconceptions concerning the mandates imposed by the state. Lesson plans shared by New Jersey State Senator Holly Schepisi indicated that they were mandatory but this was false. This misinformation created an uproar among concerned parents.
The new curriculum adapted by the local school district applies to students in grades K-6 and was written by Stafford teachers and administrators. Three local representatives attended meetings with other Ocean County school delegates. Work on changes to the curriculum began in January.
“They followed a county template for the standards,” Bush said. “We then added a Stafford flair to it.”
According to Bush, the actual health lessons pertaining to Stafford schools that apply to sex education, impact second grade, fifth grade, and sixth grade classes.
Some of the lessons are not new to Stafford schools and parents have always had the ability to opt their children out of discussions they found inappropriate.
Bush explained the new mandates add two new standards for second grade students. First, schools are expected to include activities related to how children may dress, what their mannerisms are, and things that they like to do. This includes discussing the range of ways people express their gender, and how gender role stereotypes may limit their behavior.
“The standard in school will continue to be taught as we’ve always done it,” shared Bush. “The student may come in wearing a soccer t-shirt….or say they like baking with grandma.”
Stafford administrators feel that both statements would meet the state’s criteria regarding gender expression and stereotypes.
Take-home assignments come into play with the state’s addition of personal growth and development as part of the new standards. The mandate calls for schools to provide correct terminology in identifying body parts and how they work to support wellness. This includes instruction on medically accurate names for genitals.
“We have always talked about the body parts that you can see on the outside (head, shoulders, knees, and toes,) Bush said. “Again, if they ask questions about private parts, we’ve told them to talk to mom and dad.”
Bush explained the state’s reasoning in ensuring students knew correct names was for their safety. Some children went into the nurse’s offices and tried to explain what was hurting them by referring to a nickname used by their family for a private area.
Stafford Schools will continue to teach outside body parts, but finds it more appropriate to make it a home assignment as far as private parts. Families will be able to teach their children in the manner they feel is appropriate for the correct identification of body parts.
The district has no intention of following up with parents concerning the at-home instruction or quizzing students on the lessons.
Second grade standards also call for lessons on reproduction and an explanation of the ways parents care for their offspring.
“Reproduction is making a copy,” pointed out Bush. “This will be a standalone lesson with the help of a PE teacher in which parents will have a permission slip prior to the date.”
Bush said that a lesson plan at this grade level could include a book about a little animal and a matching game. It could introduce discussions about how a bigger animal cares for a smaller one.
The state also has set expectations at the older grades as far as what impacts hormones. The district plans to explain and discuss various emotions and feelings that emerge from puberty.
Stafford Schools will not be discussing romantic feelings or masturbation. Parents can access the lesson plans targeted for fifth grade students by the physical education teachers.
“The new standards added to fifth grade include explaining the relationships between sexual intercourse and human reproduction.” Bush said. “They also call for an explanation of the range of ways pregnancy can occur.”
Although this topic was previously assigned as a sixth grade unit, Stafford Schools has decided to make it a at home assignment so that parents can discuss what they feel is appropriate for their child to learn about human reproduction.
Fifth grade students are expected to learn about social and sexual healthy ways to express orientation and gender in regards to gender role stereotypes. This could include discussions about male students who want to be nurses or female students who want to be doctors.
“We will continue to focus on acceptance and respect for everybody,” emphasized Bush.
Sixth grade standards include lessons on the stages of pregnancy from fertilization to birth with parents able to opt out on the class. However, the curriculum requirements from sixth to eighth grade go into more depth.
“We will not address any of the standards related to gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation,” Bush said. “We did not even put them in our curriculum document because again, passing the red face test, they have to meet the standard by eighth grade.”
State mandates also requires schools to integrate the political, economic and social contributions of persons with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Bush gave some examples of how this might be taught in the sixth grade curriculum. A math teacher might put up two dads going to the grocery store and not say anything further about the two dads. A student who has two dads at home might identify with the example.
The big focus will also be on remembering that the law also includes those with disabilities. Stafford Schools plans to highlight these contributions.
Bush ended her presentation by addressing concerns that teaching diversity and inclusion equated to lessons on critical race theory.
“We have not and will not implement anything,” stressed Bush. “(Critical race theory) is actually an academic concept at the college level.”
“What we are teaching is anti-bullying, sharing acts of kindness, Holocaust education, and listening to others,” Bush summarized.
As far as Bush is concerned, the curriculum adapted by Stafford Schools passes the “red face” test. Districts throughout the state have taken on their own approach, with some even reserving the controversial lessons for the last day of school.