Perhaps it’s no surprise that when it comes to public schools teaching curriculum related to self-identity and gender-identity, things can get complicated quickly.
While crucially important for things like building empathy and reducing bullying at school, those subjects have the unfortunate potential to spark outrage and division in the broader community.
In the coming years, Tacoma Public Schools plans to wade into the fray anyway.
This spring, the district will embark on the process of purchasing K-12 curriculum that includes these topics and others. It’s all part of new state requirements and guidelines for health and physical education.
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From what I’ve learned, the process will be thoughtful. That’s admirable and what the situation calls for.
Still, here’s the thing: For the kids, time is of the essence.
As a recent story in the Seattle Times noted, these new health and physical education standards — approved in March 2016 — went into effect this school year. The requirements are broad and fairly vanilla for the most part, mandating instruction on things like disease prevention and goal-setting skills.
But the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction also provided topic suggestions and guidance on how individual school districts can best go about meeting them. That includes grade-by-grade, age-appropriate recommendations for broaching the subjects of self-identity and gender-identity.
This guidance is just that — guidance. It’s not mandatory teaching, as has sometimes been claimed for what seems like no other reason than to stoke outrage. Rather, it’s a framework intended to offer school districts with a blueprint for implementing curriculum on a vast array of topics that fall within the new broad requirements.
For children in kindergarten, OSPI spokesman Nathan Olson says, that might mean classroom discussions about gender expression. That might include talking about why it’s OK for boys to play with dolls and wear pink, and why it’s equally OK for girls to dig dump trucks and play sports.
By fourth grade, Olson says it might mean lessons that define the term “sexual orientation” and demonstrating ways to show respect for all people.
All of these things, Olson says, have been asked for by students and teachers and already are covered in many classrooms.
Oasis Youth Center Executive Director Seth Kirby says such age-appropriate lessons have the potential to be crucially important for school kids. Not only does it have the potential to help them build empathy and understanding throughout all grade levels, it also presents an opportunity to prevent violence, sexual harassment and hurtful stereotypes.
I don’t know that I even have words to say how important it is, and how positive that could be for a student. ... By having curriculum that acknowledges that there is more than two ways to be in the world, it can really make a difference, and really tell a student that they can be who they are.
Oasis Youth Center Executive Director Seth Kirby
“The reality is that youth are coming out and identifying as who they are at younger ages, and that makes sense because there are words to describe their experiences,” Kirby says.
“I don’t know that I even have words to say how important it is and how positive that could be for a student,” Kirby continues. “By having curriculum that acknowledges that there is more than two ways to be in the world, it can really make a difference, and really tell a student that they can be who they are.”
According to Hannah Gbenro, Tacoma Public Schools’ director of K-12 academic alignment and innovation, the district hopes to find coursework and teaching materials that are in the spirit of what OSPI suggests.
Gbenro acknowledges that currently TPS does not have a curriculum that that’s fully in line with the guidance OSPI has provided, including on the subjects of self-identity and sexual identity. TPS is not teaching these topics this year, though Gbenro says it’s the district’s hope to remedy that in the future.
“It is our goal with TPS to be able to find curriculum resources that align with those topics closely,” Gbenro says.
If the district doesn’t receive the right bid — or doesn’t have the budget to implement it correctly — it won’t feel obligated to purchase new curriculum this year, Gbenro says.
Furthermore, when the district does identify a curriculum that meets its criteria, Gbenro says the process of implementing it will involve an extensive public process, including multiple chances for parents and the community to review it, as well as an opportunity for families to opt children out.
“The curriculum is one piece of it, and I think that’s a big starting place,” Gbenro says. “Then it’s a continuing conversation with our community and our educators about how do we best do this, and how do we also give families the knowledge and the options to choose what is right for their students?”
The curriculum is one piece of it, and I think that’s a big starting place. Then it’s a continuing conversation with our community and our educators about how do we best do this, and how do we also give families the knowledge and the options to choose what is right for their students?
Hannah Gbenro, Tacoma Public Schools’ director of K-12 academic alignment and innovation
Currently, Gbenro says, there’s no specified implementation date, and while something might be in place as soon as next school year, a multi-phase rollout could take three to five years.
Tacoma’s approach is an attentive, deliberate one. For this, the district deserves credit. Unfortunately, not all districts in the state will be so bold.
The district’s hearts, minds and motivations also are obviously in the right place. That’s also a good thing. After all, the end goal — with schoolchildren having access to needed identity instruction — is all that truly matters.
But every moment that’s lost to process represents a missed opportunity to positively impact a student’s life.
Because, when it comes to self-identity and gender-identity curriculum, the children are clearly ready for it. Seattle already is forging ahead with such curriculum.
“For most students, I don’t know that it’s new thing,” Kirby says.
“They’re absolutely talking about it.”