How the Syosset School District Teaches Race In the Classroom

By: Jessica Coacci
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The Syosset Central School District on Long Island has added steps into their curriculum to ensure that Black history is being taught at an elementary, middle and high school level.

During the recurring Black Lives Matter protests last year, countless lives were lost at the hands of police brutality. Although a significant portion of the student body includes students of color, the authors of books in the commonly-used elementary school curriculum are, on average, 84% white. Many educators are uncomfortable teaching race at a young age. However, many argue race, privilege and bias are necessary to teach kids in the classroom. 

The Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Technology for Syosset Central School District, Theresa Curry, said from the elementary level on, race and diversity are taught at a young age. Music and art classes are where students study the arts of Black artists and musicians. In world language courses, students interpret texts that target and other cultural ethnicities.

“We strive to have the books in our libraries and classrooms serve as mirrors, so that our students may see themselves reflected in the literature, and windows so they may gain insight into diverse cultures,” said Curry. 

Syosset Central School District was also the first Long Island school district to recognize the holidays of Diwali, Lunar New Year, Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha by including them as district holidays. The district is composed of 10 schools with seven elementary, two middle and one high school.

To ensure diversity and race is being introduced in books, the Syosset School District has an array of them at the elementary, middle and high school level to introduce diversity and inclusion between different cultures and ethnicities. 

At the elementary level, the schools benefit from their partner Teachers College, where there is a large number of authors available in classroom libraries. At the secondary level, which is both middle and high schools, books are intentionally chosen that address themes of race. 

“My goal is to allow all students to find themselves in what we read and to learn about people whose realities and experiences they do not have immediate access to,” said Syosset High School English Teacher David Gordon.

At the middle school, students had a virtual visit with Kwame Alexander, creator of the #AllBooksForAllKids initiative that brings more diverse books into school libraries.

To ensure race was taught through books at the high school, the entire ninth grade reads and studies a novel by a contemporary author of color every year.  

Along with including diverse books, the district’s students take the direct initiative to build relationships with social justice organizations and make sure their voices are heard.

All three secondary schools have earned the No Place for Hate Designation through the Anti-Defamation League, a student-led program where students and staff engage in dialogue and active learning on the topics of bias, bullying and inclusion. 

?: Anti-Defamation league

Syosset students also participate in Erase Racism’s Student Task Force where they share ideas with staff on how to develop a more culturally responsive curriculum.

The middle school has partnered with Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that provides online professional development and classroom resources addressing racism, anti-semitism and prejudice at pivotal moments in history. At the elementary schools, the Harmony social-emotional learning program (SEL) is designed to teach children about cooperation, empathy and effective communication, while also promoting an inclusive environment in the classroom. 

“These resources help students connect choices made in the past to the choices they will confront in their own lives,” said Curry. “We have incorporated restorative community-building circles so that all students develop the ability to speak their truth, listen for empathy and build strong relationships.”

In response to recent racial injustice movements such as Black Lives Matter, new social studies courses were made to accommodate recent changes in society. 

“The main objective of this work was to thoughtfully reflect and to respond to current social discontent, as well as to larger social justice movements within our country and throughout the globe,” said Curry. 

For the future of the district, Curry says the program is always changing and evolving to work around societal changes.

Jessica Coacci

Jessica Coacci

Jessica Coacci is a journalist at Stony Brook University. She is a Long Island Native and advocate for social justice, diversity and environmental policy. She plans to seek change locally and nationally through her informative reporting. Instagram @Jessicacoacci Twitter @JessicaCoacci__

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