By Jill Tucker
State officials on Thursday added the evolution of gay rights and the contributions of lesbian and gay figures in history to the list of topics that public-school students will be taught in California, a landmark move that puts the ongoing LGBT civil rights fight into the mainstream of public education.
The state Board of Education unanimously approved the new social studies curriculum framework in Sacramento after several years of debate, public input and revisions. The effort drew thousands of written comments as the state board considered what kind of history should be taught in each grade.
The vote officially implements provisions of a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011 requiring that social studies instructional materials include the roles and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. Challenges to that law, as well as recessionary budget cuts, had delayed the adoption of revised social studies content at each grade level in K-12 schools.
State and local education officials applauded the changes.
History is not just "who was king or queen when," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. The framework includes content "not only acknowledging diversity, but celebrating our diversity as a strength," he said.
Content starts in 2nd grade
The new social studies framework addresses LGBT topics starting in second grade, in content related to stories of diverse families, including those with LGBT parents and children.
In fourth grade, the content includes the march of gay rights from the 1950s to the 2015 Supreme Court decision supporting same-sex marriage.
Then, in 11th grade, instruction focuses on gay rights and identity, specifically in the progressive and social justice movements, including the speakeasy era of the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance.
"LGBT students are frequent targets of bullying and harassment, leading to lower graduation rates, depression and a suicide attempt rate up to four times higher than their non-LGBT peers," said Rick Zbur, executive director of the LGBT rights group Equality California. "And by seeing themselves reflected in lessons and materials, students' experiences are validated and their sense of self-worth reinforced, creating the opportunity for students to be able to achieve academically."
The framework is essentially an outline of history topics by grade level, acting as a guide in the development of textbooks and other curriculum materials.
The LGBT content was vocally opposed by conservative groups when the legislation passed five years ago.
"The greatest concern is that the framework tends to normalize and reinforce things that have led to negative social and human consequences in society and promote them as progress," said Bill May, head of the Bay Area-based Catholics for the Common Good Institute. "Curricula should be evaluated by how well it promotes men and women marrying before having children, discourages conceiving children with the intention of depriving them of the fundamental right of ... being in relationship with their own mother, father or both, and helps children understand the value of true friendship that can lead to stable marriages and families rather than friendships based on sexual relationships."
Pilot LGBT course in S.F.
While school districts across California have been waiting for the state board to provide guidance on LGBT content, some already incorporate such topics into coursework, including in San Francisco.
The district introduced an LGBT studies course this past year, piloting it at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. Two other high schools will offer the course in the upcoming school year.
"Schools have a responsibility to provide accurate, honest, and fully reflective curriculum that elevates the experience and voices of groups that are often left out," said Matt Haney, the president of San Francisco's school board. "I think it's important and overdue the state board is taking these steps."
The LGBT topics were part of a broader overhaul of the social studies curriculum framework that the Board of Education approved Thursday. Many of the record 241 speakers who showed up for public comment at the meeting addressed concerns over the depiction of Hindus, Muslims and other ethnic and religious groups. Others expressed support for greater inclusion of specific events in history, including the Bataan Death March and the Armenian genocide.
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