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ERASE Racism forum at Molloy College discusses diversifying education

Integrating culture in curriculum in Rockville Centre and beyond

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Leah E. Watson, president of The Links Incorporated Long Island Chapter, far left; Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism; Dr. Makila Meyers, of the New York State Education Department; and Andrea Honigsfeld, associate dean and director of Molloy College’s Doctoral Program in Education, attended the event.
Leah E. Watson, president of The Links Incorporated Long Island Chapter, far left; Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism; Dr. Makila Meyers, of the New York State Education Department; and Andrea Honigsfeld, associate dean and director of Molloy College’s Doctoral Program in Education, attended the event.
Courtesy ERASE Racism

Long Island high school students indicated on Saturday that they want to see a wider range of identities represented in school lesson plans.

ERASE Racism, an advocacy group that challenges racial segregation and discrimination, held a forum about diversifying class curricula at Molloy College in Rockville Centre. About 100 educators, students, administrators, parents and advocates from across Long Island attended the event. The afternoon opened and closed with remarks from members of the ERASE Racism Student Task Force, explaining the changes they want.

“Only hearing about one Euro-centric way of life for years impacts students’ self-esteem and how they view their identity,” said Brianna Taylor, a task force member and a junior at Friends Academy, in Glen Cove. “When culturally responsive curriculum is implemented, it gives everyone a seat at the table and a chance to be represented.”

Chris Pellettieri, the Rockville Centre School District’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, told the Herald in an email Tuesday that the district has been taking steps to diversify its curriculum. He expressed pride in the Foreign Language Elementary School program, which teaches both Spanish language and culture. He also noted the district is examining reading materials to ensure that “those represented in the books and stories we read and discuss represent our diverse student body.

“Rockville Centre Public Schools is working each and every day to be more culturally responsive in order to meet our entire school community needs,” he added. “Culturally responsive education is something we take very seriously and is a core value of our excellence and equity for all approach.”

Earlier this year, the New York State Department of Education released a drafted framework for integrating cultural diversity into school curricula in a document called “Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education.” Those guidelines shared many similarities to what ERASE Racism’s student representatives noted they wanted to see taught at schools when they began planning for the Molloy event last November.

“This is about the power of the students’ voice and giving a comfortable space for people to have potentially uncomfortable conversations,” said Nyah Berg, ERASE Racism’s education equity organizer.

Berg noted that one student described the feeling of being the only person of color in a classroom and having to speak on behalf of an entire population — a teacher, for example, asking a black student to share perspective on the civil rights movement — and feeling isolated by that incident. The event encouraged an integrative approach in which non-white culture is “an inclusive part of the curriculum rather than a tangential piece.”

Following the student task force’s presentation, the conference broke into six hour-long workshops, all of which repeated, so that attendees could sit it on two. The breakout groups discussed various topics, including teaching black literature, discussing social justice in the classroom, addressing historical symbols of hate and integrating diversity in English classes.

Adele Bovard, deputy superintendent of the Syosset Central School District, attended the conference. “We’re just at the beginning of this important conversation,” she said. “It’s important that we see [culturally responsive education] as something that doesn’t lay on top of curriculum we already have, but is organic in every content area. We need to take what we’re teaching and infuse more culture into, rather than adding something new.”

Sixty-two percent of attendees were white, 21 percent were black and 12 percent were Hispanic, according to Berg, a ratio that closely reflected that of the region. She stressed the importance of all stakeholders — parents, students, educators and administrators — to contribute to integrating cultures intro curriculum.

Dr. Makila Meyers, a project coordinator on New York State’s “Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education” framework, offered closing remarks, along with ERASE Racism Student Task Force alumus Sufyan Hameed. Meyers spoke about the steps that the state education department is taking toward pushing culturally responsive education forward.

“The state’s framework is a great resource,” Berg said. “I’m excited to see what next steps schools will take.”

Taylor agreed, as she reflected on the work she and the student task force completed and will continue. “Most [attendees] came from a place where they want to learn and implement this, but don’t know where to start,” she explained. “We’re all very proud of the outcome and can’t wait to hear back on work the teachers are doing to get students involved, and see how this comes to fruition.”