Can a textbook save lives?

Met with mixed cheers and boos, Elk Grove school board votes in favor of LGBT-inclusive social studies textbooks

From left, Ellen Degeneres, Malala Yousafzai and Harvey Milk will be mentioned in a new textbook that will be used by the Elk Grove Unified School District.

From left, Ellen Degeneres, Malala Yousafzai and Harvey Milk will be mentioned in a new textbook that will be used by the Elk Grove Unified School District.

Photo illustration by sarah hansel

After a nine-month review process and several hours of passionate testimony, the Elk Grove school board last week unanimously approved more inclusive history and social sciences curricula for K-8 students.

The McGraw-Hill Impact California textbook came under intense public scrutiny because it includes historical and contemporary LGBT figures such as Harvey Milk and Ellen Degeneres, which some parents and community members felt was inappropriate content for elementary school students.

The textbooks place these stories alongside the contributions of other sidelined communities in a more realistic depiction of the state’s history. In a district struggling with a growing bullying problem, the school board was swayed by personal and professional arguments that representation is fundamental to building understanding and respect.

The decision to adopt new textbooks, which will go into classrooms in the fall, came from changes in education requirements at the state level. The district’s current materials were adopted in 2007 to comply with a framework established in 2000, and don’t comply with increased content requirements for history and social science set in 2016.

The expanded language of Senate Bill 48 (also known as the FAIR Act) in 2012 added to the existing Education Code, which already required “the inclusion of the contributions of various groups in the history of California and the United States.” The updated language specifically added “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans,” as well as “persons with disabilities.”

The staff presented a slide showing more than 100 figures from various identities and ethnic backgrounds in the new materials, including the Navajo Code Talkers, authors Langston Hughes and Laura Ingalls Wilder, astronaut Sally Ride and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for female education and youngest ever Nobel laureate.

Dawniell Black, the program specialist for history and social studies at Elk Grove Unified School District, detailed the process that led to the recommendation of the McGraw-Hill program over texts from Pearson or National Geographic. After testing potential materials, more than 120 teachers agreed on the McGraw-Hill materials as the more effective program. Their evaluations, along with feedback from more than 180 parents and community members, were passed on to the Social Science Steering Committee and the Curriculum Council, which unanimously favored Impact California.

Representatives from LGBT advocacy groups Equality California (a sponsor of the FAIR act) and the Stonewall Democrats of Sacramento also supported the curriculum, though some said it didn’t do enough to highlight the contributions of LGBT figures. Eric Goods, a veteran and Democratic party delegate, advocated for including Marsha P. Johnson, an advocate for queer and trans rights who famously threw the first brick at the Stonewall Riot in 1969.

But other community members said the materials did not provide the right kinds of inclusivity. The Folsom-based religious liberty advocacy group California Family Council was an early opponent. Greg Burt, an Elk Grove parent and council representative, argued at the February 5 meeting that introducing elementary students to LGBT figures is “biased and prejudiced against the views on sexuality that many religious believers in this community have.”

Parent Raymond Kemp, highlighting Alexander Leidesdorff, a biracial man who helped found San Francisco and Folsom, said historical figures should encourage students to “become entrepreneurs, writers … all things that we need in this society.”

While he believes LGBT people should be able to live with dignity, Kemp said he doesn’t believe “bedroom business” should be part of the curriculum.

One notable contingent of support came from Sikh community members, who said the new textbooks represent a major step forward. Gurprit Singh Hansra said the McGraw-Hill curriculum reflects the long history of Sikhs living in California and helps demystify cultural differences such as the turban.

“Fear of the unknown,” he said, “cannot go away unless we educate the people.”

Bullying was a clear theme of the evening. In the open forum portion of the meeting, nearly every comment that was not about the textbook issue was a parent or advocate of a student who had experienced intense and escalating bullying on an Elk Grove campus.

Members of the LGBT community spoke about their experience with bullying and mental health struggles, and the value of representation in overcoming social obstacles. Nicholas Bua, a science teacher in the Elk Grove school district who identified as both a Christian and a member of the queer community, said the textbooks could help address a systemic issue.

“Non-inclusive education leads to a culture of ignorance and hateful comments … that make queer people feel rejected and despised,” Bua said.

Board trustee Nancy Chaires Espinoza methodically responded to opponents’ arguments, including the assertion that figures in the textbook were included “only” because of their sexual orientation.

“Buried in there is the assumption that these people didn’t have the ability to make contributions to society and I think that’s a symptom of why we need to change the way that we’re teaching history and social science,” she said. “Mere acknowledgment that people exist is not special treatment.”

Trustee Bobbie Singh-Allen compared her experience as a Sikh-American facing bullying and racism to the high rates of LGBT depression and suicide, and the power of representation to combat these issues.

“The time is always right to do what is right,” she said. “This is right. The time is today."