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Push made to reform education on racism in Lynbrook schools

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The pressure for schools to expand their curriculums on the subject of racial inequality, systemic bias and modern injustices continues to increase with the strengthening of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death. There is now a greater push than ever to widen kindergarten through 12th grade teachings in order to ensure that students learn about racism in modern times.

A group of Lynbrook alumni recently started a Facebook page, called Working Group to Reform Lynbrook Curriculum, with the goal of expanding Lynbrook’s curriculum to include elements of anti-bias and anti-racism through all grades. The group said its mission is to expose all students to diversity and inclusion, and to ensure that teachers are able to facilitate this type of learning rather than talking about the history of past events alone.

Skyler Kessler, a 2014 Lynbrook High School graduate and rising third-year medical student at Washington University in St. Louis, started the initiative with his fellow alumni. He said he is motivated by his passion for social justice.

“I started this class a few weeks after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson [Mo.], only a few miles from my college campus,” he said. “It was challenging for me, having come from Lynbrook, to confront systemic racism. I would have considered myself pretty ignorant at that point, and this was a big learning experience for me.”

Kessler explained that he wanted to make an effort to incorporate these topics into the curriculum for years, but was unsure how feasible it would be to gain support from community allies. “Now that these movements are gaining more momentum, the need is greater than ever before,” he said.

The Facebook group had more than 80 members at press time. They share the common goal of promoting anti-biased and anti-racist curriculum reforms. The group comprises alumni from as early as 2005, parents from the district and current LHS students. They plan to address the Lynbrook Board of Education at some point in the future and hope to eventually share the proposal with other  districts. 

“The proposal is multi-faceted — advocating for broader reform within the district, including curriculum changes that incorporate increased opportunities to learn about race and diversity,” Kessler said. “We encourage conversations to help students relate history to the present.”

The group meets every Tuesday over Zoom. In their meetings, they identify problems that exist within the community and set out goals to reform the Lynbrook education system. They said they hoped to create committees at the June 16 meeting.

LHS Principal Joseph Rainis supports the group’s initiative. “I think [their proposal] is all part and parcel of what I envision,” he said. “Things such as books and college classes open people’s eyes to the systemic racism that exists. We have a group of people from the Lynbrook schools whose eyes have been opened, and they want to share that with LHS, and I applaud that.”

Rainis added that he plans to provide educators with a greater depth of training to cover these issues with their students. “Without that taking place on the professional development side, staff members may feel ill-equipped to talk about these issues in class,” he said. “In our nation’s history, we have not successfully confronted these issues. But I think it would be a mistake to rush into these conversations. Every perspective needs to be widened: all races, all genders, all people.”

English teacher Roseanne Mitchell has addressed these topics with her students and provided them with educational resources such as the Smithsonian website and books written by black authors. She uses her class time to serve as a forum, allowing her students to share their feelings without judgement.

“I think one of the most important roles as an educator, before the curriculum, is establishing a rapport with your students,” she said. “On top of that, you need to make sure that the students have a relationship with each other. If there’s not also a sense of comfort in the classroom, or a student thinks that the teacher is being insincere, it’s difficult to have these conversations.”

Advanced Placement U.S. government and politics teacher Kimberly Herrmann is familiar with discussing controversial topics with her students. She helps them in developing the ability to articulate their thoughts and find answers.

“We teach the issues of injustice and inequality throughout history,” she said. “Perhaps as a result of the current tension, it might be important to draw the parallels of the issues we teach to this current tension more directly. I do think, however, that the topic itself has to be presented in an unbiased way.”

She said, for example, that police brutality implies a judgement that is confrontational, and that a more neutral way to introduce the topic with students could be police relations. Herrmann’s government classes discussed the purpose, need and direction of the current protests. They also analyzed the constitutionality of the government’s response, while exploring issues of police relations and racism.

Board of Education President William Belmont said that the board is aware of the Facebook group, but there are no changes being made to the curriculum.

“Lynbrook has always been very open and welcoming to all people regardless of their sexual orientation, race, or religion,” he said. “We are always looking at what can be done to better our students’ education and provide our teachers with the right tools to teach these issues. We have a Diversity Committee as part of the school district. Lynbrook tries to educate on the values of empathy and understanding, not about one particular group, in order to accept all people no matter what their differences are.”