UNFPA sex-education graphicUNFPA graphic

UPDATED May 2: Sex education is being taught somewhat differently in Arlington Public Schools now. Is the curriculum new? Is it appropriate? Was it sufficiently publicized? Are district policies and procedures sufficient to handle controversy about it? Were changes to the lessons approved thoroughly, and, if not, ought they be, even after implementation?

Such questions are before APS, the Arlington School Committee and to some extent the wider community.

Five backers of the “new” curriculum – under revision since 2021 and which reduced use of gender binary terms in February, in time for “human growth and development” lessons to begin in fourth and fifth grade this year – spoke at the committee meeting April 27.

As part of his comprehensive response to a list of questions submitted by YourArlington last week, Roderick MacNeal Jr., assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said he doesn’t consider the curriculum truly new. Read all questions and responses below the April 27 School Committee meeting summary.

MacNeal confirms changes

He confirmed the aspect that opponents have most harshly criticized the past two months. As of February, instructors in many cases use phrases that are longer and anatomically specific, such as “person with ovaries” rather than “girl.” This is so as not to exclude students who identify as nonbinary, transgender, gender-fluid and so on – and who may not necessarily be accurately categorized as boys or girls as those terms have traditionally been understood.

This is the first time that an APS official has described for public consumption this terminology practice and the reasoning behind it. Some of the concepts were featured at a February forum to which parents of the relevant students were invited; about 40 attended, MacNeal said.

Read the related documents involved here >> and here >>

YourArlington does not recall a report on sex-education protocol having been made to the committee by any senior APS educator in the past three years, even though curriculum is addressed at virtually every meeting, usually by a managerial-level staffer. An oral presentation was delivered by Rainbow Task Force member Em Phillips, a high-school senior, at the March 30 committee meeting; that report mentioned updates to the sex-ed curriculum, but only briefly and in general terms.

5 parents back current practice

“I stand in support of the changes,” said David Bricklin-Small of Paul Revere Road during the public-comment portion of the agenda that is offered at the beginning of each committee meeting. “It is safe, healthy and appropriate to share this information” with students, he said.

Dan Gillis of Alpine Street said, “Children really are the best of us” because they know and accept that “transgender and nonbinary kids exist.”

Kathryn Byers of Summit Street said that she was concerned about ongoing antitrans rhetoric, particularly on the national scene. “To say that children are under attack [elsewhere in the U.S.] is not hyperbole.”

Claire Johnson of Wright Street said, “My hope is [that sex-ed curriculum opponents] can find a way to empathize with their neighbors who are trans” or who otherwise don’t necessarily fit into the male-female dichotomy.

Sarah Barton of Huntington Road asked the committee to make an “explicit commitment” to inclusion. 

By longstanding practice, the committee did not respond to any of the speakers. 

What to do?

How to handle any possible future parental objections – such as the one filed several weeks ago about the sex-ed curriculum and then withdrawn 36 hours before a public hearing was to have taken place April 13 – sparked lively discussion.

School Committee logo

Discussion about policy revision highlights issues.

It occurred toward the end of the meeting, during a regular agenda section that is usually routine – reports from subcommittees, in this case the policies and procedures subcommittee.

Paul Schlichtman, head of that subcommittee, said that policy wording is being revised. He said a worthy goal would be to preserve the right for someone to ask a question or issue a challenge and yet “not create angst or turmoil for anyone, especially for our students.”

Committee members decided at the April 13 meeting to suspend until May 25 the acceptance of any formal curriculum objections until these policy revisions are complete, ideally by that same date.

But whether such revisions are necessary was not universally agreed upon April 27.

Complaint policy called 'vague'

Committee member Len Kardon said that a policy section concerning complaints about curriculum – KE – already exists. He said it is up to the committee chair to decide whether any complaint deserves space on a meeting agenda. 

Member Jeff Thielman said that “KE [in its original form] is very vague. It doesn’t really give any clear path to a resolution.” 

New committee Chair Kirsi Allison-Ampe asked, perhaps rhetorically, “Why do we have this policy? We are not required [to do so] by law.”

Liz Exton, the immediate past chair, said, “We are an elected body” whose responsibilities include approving curricula. She said the committee needs “an avenue for [a possibly controversial matter] to be reconsidered in a way that is constructive.”

Member Jane Morgan said, “The public ultimately can appeal anything to us, and then we go from there.”

Thielman added: “If the School Committee takes a vote on [a curriculum, a curriculum revision or a parental complaint], it’s over. What happened here is that [a committee vote on the sex-ed curriculum] never happened.”

Reports on science, history curricula

Two reports on curriculum took up much of the meeting earlier, one on science, the other on social studies/history.

Science Director Sam Hoyo said that an important current emphasis is on application of science and application of knowledge

At the middle-school level, strengthening science practices includes use of online simulations and investment in equipment/materials, including 3D printers and laser cutters. 

At Arlington High School, the organization of ninth-grade physical science has been revamped to start with more hands-on experiences and then bring in mathematics later in the course. The intention is to “work together to give students common language in math and science.” 

New electives include many specific areas of science, such as entomology. 

And lessons to some extent address how science has tangible impacts on social, environmental and racial justice.

Climate science is extremely important, Hoyo said. “We try to integrate it as much as we can.”

The science curriculum takes its cue from the district’s own vision statement outlook emphasizing “belonging, growth and joy.” According to Hoyo, that is “education in a nutshell.”

Kaitlin Moran, director of history and social studies, noted that this was her first time in front of the committee, though she is a veteran educator/administrator who has also taught college and run businesses. See her presentation >>

Some goals in the subject areas she supervises are increasing representation of minorities, including Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Latinos, queer voices and disabled voices; centering student identity in the classroom; and working on uncovering one’s own biases.

Elementary curriculum is undergoing long-term revision, and analysis is ongoing, with an audit having been completed. Moran thanked the nonprofit Arlington Education Foundation for its grant that made educator attendance possible at a recent conference in Philadelphia. 

She noted that the two history and social science coaches who serve the seven elementary schools are now considered curriculum specialists. 

The first-ever Civics Day was held March 15 at Ottoson Middle School. As reported previously by YourArlington, four projects in the annual National History Day competition are bound for national evaluation in June, and teacher Shaina Byrne has received an award for her work.

Ethnic Studies and a pilot of the advanced-placement African American Studies are two new courses at AHS; Moran said she appreciated the committee’s ongoing support particularly for the latter.

Responding to a question from Thielman, she said that immigration and migration are addressed in both fifth grade and seventh grade, and more in-depth at the high-school level, including the forced migration of Africans to the U.S. and the Chinese Exclusion Act.

In other business:
  • No one spoke at the public hearing on school choice, which has to take place by June 1 every year. The committee voted unanimously that the district generally will not be admitting nonresidents due to lack of capacity and to so inform the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
  • Superintendent Elizabeth C. Homan reported that students from Nagaokokyo, Japan, are hosted by Arlngton families for the first time in four years. The students are visiting Dallin Elementary School, OMS and AHS. She also said that searches for half-a-dozen senior administrative positions are in their final stages.
  • The vote was 7-0 authorizing the chair to sign the LABBB agreement. The initials stand for Lexington, Arlington, Bedford, Belmont and Burlington; Watertown is now joining this educational collaborative for designing and delivering special-education services. 
  • The consent agenda passed unanimously.

The meeting adjourned at 8:27 p.m., just shy of two hours long – shorter than the agenda had predicted. 

MacNeal provides responses to questions about changes

Roderick MacNeal Jr.MacNealRoderick MacNeal Jr., assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, has responded to a list of questions from YourArlington about the health-education curriculum:

Was the previous curriculum the well-known "Body Shop," and, if so, for how many years was it used at Arlington Public Schools?

The Great Body Shop “Growing Up” unit was used as a resource when developing the grade four and five Human Growth and Development Lessons in 2021. The lessons were developed as part of a grant awarded to Arlington Public Schools (Symmes Grant) to provide Human Growth and Development (puberty) lessons to grades four and five. The intent of the lessons were to be inclusive to all genders.

Was it taught to fifth graders, fourth graders or both?

It was rolled out to grade five in 2022 and taught to grade four and five in 2023.

What time of year was it usually taught?

The lessons in 2023 were taught at all elementary schools in late February to May (one school had to move to a later date, but all other schools finished their lessons by mid-April).

Was it typically taught by the students' regular classroom teachers or by someone else -- in which case, what was their title/capacity?

In 2022, the lessons were taught by a school nurse at most schools and a school social worker at one school. In 2023, the lessons were taught by the health educators at each school in collaboration with the school social workers and/or school nurses as a support team. 

What is the name of the new curriculum? Who created it? Does it have an accessible website?

The curriculum is named “Human Growth and Development.” It was originally created by an APS school nurse as part of the Symmes Grant awarded in 2021. The curriculum is not considered to be “new.” Lesson revisions were made in February 2023 to remove binary gendered language when talking about gender expression.

When was the decision made to change the curriculum?

After working with consultants (DESE Safe Schools being one) and receiving feedback on the existing curriculum, we made some revisions. We removed a video and included more talking points for the teachers. In the lessons, the teachers educate the students of the difference between sex assigned at birth and gender identity.

And when speaking about specific changes during puberty the teachers avoid using the term "girls will experience ..." and "boys will experience ...." Instead, the teachers will focus on the organs of the body that will experience these changes.

For example, they may say "a person with ovaries may begin menstruation during puberty." For example, if a transgender girl were to hear “girls will experience ...,” the fact will not apply to them.

Another example I can share with you ... if a transgender boy hears you say that a boy may experience nocturnal emissions, that would not be true for him, because they don't have a penis. Students who identify as nonbinary would also feel that they do not fit into this binary language. 

Using binary language such as “boy” and “girl” will exclude some students. Using language that is specific to the reproductive organs that will experience these changes does not exclude anyone. If a student in class were to ask something like "do all girls get their period at the same time?". We may answer with something like ... "No, not all girls or people that have ovaries will get their period at the same time.".In this case all students are represented with this answer.

Whose decision was it?

We created a committee that included educators, nurses, administrators and outside consultants. Ultimately, the wellness director made a recommendation based upon the work of the committee to the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, who approved the changes.

Were parents notified of the intended change, and, if so, when, and how? Which parents were they -- those of current fifth graders, those of current fourth graders, those of imminent fifth graders, those of imminent fourth graders?

Grade four and five parents were notified via email and invited to a parent forum discussion.

YourArlington became aware only after the fact that a forum took place in February about the curriculum. To whom was notification given about the forum? How many attended?

Pursuant to district policy, all fourth- and fifth-grade parents were invited to a forum before the updated curriculum was implemented. The forum included a presentation on the updated curriculum by the K-12 director of health and wellness supplemented by remarks from a DESE Safe Schools representative, and an elementary social worker who taught the lessons last year. The goal of the forum was to present the curriculum and advise parents of their rights to opt their children out of receiving the lessons. Approximately 40 parents attended.

Is it true that terms such as boy/girl, man/woman, male/female and so on are not used in the new curriculum?

These terms are used when speaking about sex assigned at birth.

Is it true that, instead, phrases such as "person with a penis" or "person with a vulva" are used instead in the new curriculum?

These phrases are used when speaking about changes that occur during puberty that are specific to a person’s sex assigned at birth. 

After the lessons were completed, teachers across the district commented on how students who identify in a gender-expansive manner exhibited a sense of belonging and inclusion.

YourArlington on Friday, April 28, 2023, submitted additional questions as follows and is awaiting responses:

1. "It was rolled out to Grade 5 in 2022" -- does that mean it was taught to Grade 5 in spring of 2022, which was before "Lesson revisions were made in February 2023 to remove binary gendered language when talking about gender expression"?
2. Are the lessons for Grades 4 and 5 in February-May being taught by "health educators," rather than classroom teachers, nurses or social workers?
3. Who are the health educators -- current APS full-time employees or otherwise, and, either way, what are their qualifications?
5. And at which campus have the lessons yet to be delivered?
6. This calendar year, how many students total -- both grades, all six elementary campuses educated so far -- have been removed by their families from the lessons? How does this number of removed students compare to its counterpart in school year 2018-2019?
7. Was there a reason that "Lesson revisions were made in February 2023 to remove binary gendered language when talking about gender expression" was not something ever put on the agenda of the Arlington School Committee?
8. The committee at every meeting hears reports about what happens in the schools including changes and improvements to curricula of all sorts, so why not this?
9. Why, when and by whom was it decided that ""Lesson revisions were made in February 2023 to remove binary gendered language" did not fall under this portion of Policy IDG: "The Committee itself will consider, and officially adopt, new programs and courses when they constitute an extensive alteration in instructional content or approach"? 


Watch the April 27 meeting on ACMi:

April 14, 2023: Gender issues spur parents' complaints, committee policy revision

This news summary and sidebar by YourArlington Assistant Editor Judith Pfeffer was published Monday, May 1, 2023. It was updated May 2, 2023, to add the additional questions more recently posed to the Arlington Public Schools administration, and also to correct the amount of time it had been since students from a "sister city" in Japan have visited Arlington and to note that APS is close to filling six mangerial positions.

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