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In a national context of schools removing books and teachers being restricted—especially on topics of race and LGBTQ+ issues—ISD 197 will begin using a supplemental anti-bias curriculum to help kids from a range of identities feel welcomed and included. While it covers race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity, the resources also focus on a wide range of other identities or lived experiences, including divorce, military deployment, adoption, homelessness, disabilty, death, and more.
“We know that learning and growth happens when kids feel connected, trusted, and affirmed,” said ISD 197 Superintendent Peter Olson-Skog. “That is what we are trying to do across many types of differences.”
The curriculum, created by St. Paul-based AMAZEworks, is geared for pre-kindergarten through fourth grade classrooms and is designed to be an additional resource for teachers—it does not replace existing curriculum. The AMAZEworks resources include lists of books for each grade level and prompts for classroom discussion.
“The goal of using AMAZEworks programming is to increase a sense of belonging for all students and to help them develop important life skills, like how to resolve conflicts and understand differing points of view,” said a statement from the district.
The anti-bias material will augment the district’s existing and ongoing equity work.
Why Add This Resource?
“Children are absorbing everything, including the negative messages around differences,” said AMAZEworks Executive Director Rebecca Slaby. “By the age of 7 our biases are ingrained in us and children tend to act on those biases.”
That kind of bullying behavior inspired the creation of AMAZEworks back in 1996. Ellie, a second grader with two moms, received a hand-written birthday card with a hateful message from a classmate. Unfortunately, that kind of hate still exists today and the impacts go well beyond the classroom.
“Somebody that I love very much, they are transgender, and they’ve been through the school system and it was hard to watch them be teased and bullied,” said West St. Paul resident Elena Villarreal, who has three children including an incoming kindergartner. “It even went to the point where they got a job after high school and they were being bullied at work by adults.”
That’s why stopping hate and discrimination has to start at a young age.
“Research shows that having explicit conversations about race and other differences actually lowers bias in children,” said Slaby.
Creating that safe, welcoming environment for all students also improves educational outcomes.
“Neuroscience and what we know about how our brain functions tell us that when students don’t feel like they belong and they don’t feel safe in an environment, they don’t engage and they don’t learn,” said Slaby. “That’s when tricky behaviors can show up.”
“Helping all of the students feel like they belong will always be part of our job,” said Olson-Skog. “That’s what these short picture books help us do. One is about kids whose parents are in the military and have been deployed. Another is about adoption. I have adopted and biological children. For other kids in their class to understand that we are ‘real’ parents to all of them, it helps. It reduces bullying, deepens understanding and empathy, and helps them feel seen.”
It’s OK to Disagree
Rather than force all students to think the same, the curriculum specifically encourages disagreement, noting that “it’s OK to have different opinions and perspectives.”
“Even if you don’t support it, you have to respect people,” said Villarreal. “We just have to be kinder to one another.”
The key is giving everyone space to feel welcomed.
“I don’t want to change your beliefs, but I do want to help you think about your behavior and how it can be inclusive or marginalizing for someone else,” said Slaby, describing an interaction with a teacher who had concerns with the program. Through conversation, Slaby and the teacher were able to find common ground. “We actually have the same goals here,” Slaby said.
With nationwide pushback on LGBTQ+ issues, it’s important to find that common ground. It can be a matter of life and death.
“When my son was in ninth grade he had people anonymously sending him messages that the world would be better without him,” said West St. Paul resident Melissa Noggle, who has four children—one a recent graduate and two still in the district. “That kind of hate is never acceptable. We should teach our kids at an earlier age how to respect and get along with everyone, even those they disagree with.”
“The LGTBQ+ aspect of this curriculum is particularly critical. As an Epicopal priest, I’ve seen the pain and harm to a child’s spiritual and mental health when they feel ‘outside’ or ‘other,’” said Mendota Heights resident Jennifer McNally, the priest at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Sunfish Lake. “Schools with programs that support conversation around LGBTQ+ issues have lower rates of bullying and fewer mental health struggles, including fewer suicide attempts. Every child deserves to feel seen, valued, and celebrated, not in spite of who they are but because of who they are, and establishing this foundation in schools is paramount to the lives of our kids, success of our schools, and health of our communities.”
All Students Welcome
While the inclusion of LGBTQ+ identities has caused controversy, it’s not the only identity helped and supported by the AMAZEworks curriculum. It also addresses homelessness, incarceration, and military deployment to focus on just three.
“The world is full of so many different types of people,” said West St. Paul resident Julie Schanke Lyford, author of Katy Has Two Grampas. “It is so important for children to know that they are not alone, that all families have their own stories and it’s wonderful for families to see stories that represent their types of family units.”
The disruption of homelessness can have a major impact on families and especially kids’ education, but the stigma of homelessness is also a challenge.
“Housing stability is a crucial factor in the long-term success of students,” said 360 Communities President and CEO Jeff Mortensen. “To ensure all students feel welcomed and empowered to succeed at school, we need focused efforts like this to address the barriers these students face.”
“There was a time when I was in jail for 20 days,” Villarreal said. “I reached out to the school and my child didn’t get the support he really needed.”
She thinks a curriculum like this is a step in the right direction.
“I think it just makes kids notice things more, like if they see their friend sad or something like that, they might ask, ‘What’s going on?’” Villarreal said.
West St. Paul’s unit of the Minnesota National Guard—A Company of the 135th Infantry, 2nd Battalion—returned from a 10-month deployment last year and has a tentative deployment coming up this year.
“If mom or dad are gone, it changes the entire dynamics of the operation of the family,” said Ed Iago, a U.S. Army veteran and a former member of the West St. Paul City Council. Today Iago lives in Inver Grove Heights and is the business liaison officer for Northern Dakota County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, a local organization that supports service members, their families, and veterans.
“Imagine a fourth grader whose mother is no longer there,” said Iago. “Kids can go through stress immediately and continuously, so for other students to understand that and try to relate to it, it’s well worth it for a teacher to address.”
How It’s Being Implemented
ISD 197 presented the curriculum to the school board in May, noting that it directly applies to the district’s strategic framework and work around equity. The district plans to begin initial training later this summer. Teachers can opt in to the training over the next three years and receive a stipend as part of the district’s standard approach to supplemental training. After that all teachers will receive the training.
“Students should be learning in an environment where their identities and lived experiences are affirmed and not stigmatized, and where they don’t have to experience bias from other kids or adults,” said Slaby.