Textbooks with LGBT history-makers coming to Elk Grove classrooms after tense debate

After a contentious debate Tuesday night capping a year of controversy, the Elk Grove Unified school board voted to adopt new textbooks that include LGBT leaders.

More than 150 parents, teachers and community members filled the board meeting to support or oppose the new K-8 social science curriculum, which brings the district in line with recent state standards.

After the unanimous vote approving the McGraw-Hill books, some audience members applauded and some jeered.

“Shame on you!” called out a parent in the back of the boardroom.

But Monterey Trails High School teacher Tyler McCurley said, “It’s time for the LGBT community to join everyone else in history and see their place in history in published curriculum.”

California’s FAIR Education Act, passed in 2011, mandates that school textbooks and curricula be more inclusive of historically underrepresented communities.

The new state-approved textbooks include lessons about the Great Irish Famine, the Armenian genocide and the presidency of Barack Obama. Lessons include figures such as the teenage women’s right activist Malala Yousafzai, and African-American poet and activist Maya Angelou.

The new textbooks and alternatives considered by Elk Grove Unified also refer to about five figures as gay or lesbian. Harvey Milk, Ellen DeGeneres and Sally Ride are a handful of close to 100 new history-makers included in state-approved textbooks.

Elk Grove Unified’s current social studies textbooks were written 19 years ago, according to Dawniell Black, the director of curriculum and professional learning who made the recommendation to the school board.

“Our current instructional materials do not align with the framework,” Black said. “As we move into the 21st century, they no longer work for our curriculum.”

The textbooks were part of a pilot program that the school district displayed during six preview sessions for parents to review. The district received 184 written feedback forms.

Additionally, more than 100 teachers volunteered to pilot the new books last year, receiving training and providing their observations to the district.

The overwhelming majority of teachers favored McGraw-Hill, saying the books provided balanced sources, electronic and supplemental resources, and student engagement, Black said.

But Greg Burt, an Elk Grove Unified parent and a spokesman for the conservative, Fresno-based organization California Family Council, said Tuesday that he had heard from a lot of concerned families.

“We’re getting tons of calls from parents,” Burt said. “People want to know if they can opt out, because this issue is really controversial.”

Several parents on Tuesday asked that the district give them advance notice about the presentation of LGBT material in classroom lessons and the choice to decline participation by their children.

But board members say the “opt out” option is only for sex education under the California Healthy Youth Act, AB 329. Parents are notified by letter that the school will be teaching sex education, and can choose whether their children will participate in the lesson.

District officials said at the meeting that learning that historic figures identify as members of the LGBT community is not sex education.

Some supporters of the new textbooks said the curriculum will help the district address the persistent bullying that many marginalized students face.

“In some cases, representation can do more than just boost morale, it can save lives,” said substitute teacher Laura Delight.

Burt argued that the new curriculum is not age-appropriate. “Typically we teach controversial topics to older grades,” Burt said. “But this is done under the guise of eliminating bullying.”

He and some other attendees said they take issue with students learning about gay or lesbian identification as early as first grade. Some pointed out that the representation of historic figures becomes more complex later in students’ education.

“In elementary school, we learn that Thomas Jefferson was a primary author of the Constitution,” said Shani Phillips-Keller, who has three children in the district. “In high school, we learn that he fathered about half a dozen children with one of his slaves.”

Parent Graham Stewart said his son identifies as transgender. “I am disappointed to hear what members of my community think of my kid,” Stewart said. “They think he is too disgraceful to be mentioned to a child in elementary school.”

While many community members cited religious grounds to oppose teaching students about LGBT figures, some Christian and Sikh leaders spoke in support of the textbooks.

“I have done one too many candlelight vigils for queer youth in our community,” said the Rev. Pamela Anderson of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Sacramento.

“The prevalence of hetero normativity and general ignorance leads students and adults in schools to continually make comments that leave members of the queer community to feel hated and despised,” said Nicholas Bua, a science teacher at Monterey Trails High School who identifies as gay.

The new textbooks will enter classrooms at the start of the 2019-20 school year.

Several organizations that opposed the textbooks said they expect the move to further divide the city.

“This board is no longer reflective of the community’s religious values,” Pacific Justice Institute attorney Matthew McReynolds said. “A lot of parents will walk away deeply disappointed. This community has changed. The demographics have changed. This is not what you expect in a city that until recently was a conservative, suburban community.”

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.