Las Vegas Sun

December 6, 2021

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New law, new policies pave way for more inclusiveness in Nevada public school lessons

Felicia Ortiz keeps her 25-year-old copy of “Occupied America: a History of Chicanos” in a special spot on her bookcase.

The book, which was assigned reading during her sophomore year of high school in New Mexico, describes the Mexican-American experience within the context of race, class division and social movements. It was the only assigned reading that resonated with her up to that point, and without it, she might not have risen to president of the Nevada State Board of Education, Ortiz said.

“It lit this fire in me, like, ‘Oh, that’s who I come from, that’s in my genes,’” Ortiz said. “It completely changed my perspective knowing my history, the people that I came from and the contributions they made to society today.”

Now, with a new law on the books in Nevada that will ensure that instruction in the state’s public schools include lessons on the history and contributions of members of marginalized communities, Ortiz is hopeful similar fires will be lit among students throughout the state.

Assembly Bill 261 was passed by the 2021 Legislature and signed into law May 29 by Gov. Steve Sisolak.

It calls for the board of trustees of a school district to ensure instruction is provided to K-12 students on the “history and contributions to science, the arts and humanities of certain groups of persons.” It prohibits the State Board of Education from selecting material for use in public schools that doesn’t adequately support the contributions of marginalized groups.

Those groups include: Native Americans, people of marginalized sexual orientation or gender identity, people with disabilities, various socioeconomic statuses, immigrants and refugees and people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, including Blacks, Basques, Hispanics, Asians and Pacific Islanders.

The standard is expected to be added to the rubric the Nevada Council to Establish Academic Standards uses to evaluate textbooks, Ortiz said. The Clark County School Board in April amended its regulation in selecting instructional material to be “inclusive and responsive to the diversity of persons without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, creed/religion, national or ethnic origin, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, marital status or age, and in accordance with selecting instructional material.”

“The best things to bring in the classroom are books that are a mirror so the students can see themselves, but also a window so students can see a different world, and that’s what this bill is trying to do. It is trying to help students become more aware of other worlds,” said Assemblywoman Natha Anderson, D-Sparks, who sponsored the legislation.

Ortiz offered up a real-life example: “Imagine if a kid who has cerebral palsy saw Stephen Hawking in their textbook,” she said.

The State Board of Education makes the final decision on textbooks approved for use in public schools. Ortiz said it could take up to 18 months to evaluate one textbook, and just because it’s approved by the state board doesn’t mean a school district is going to use it. But changing curriculum policy to be more inclusive prompts publishers to update academic content in the textbooks they print.

CCSD, Ortiz noted, is “the fifth largest school district in the country. “The textbook companies will fix their textbooks because they want to sell them,” she said.

Even with the new law and new policies, some officials aren’t convinced the curriculum will be adequately updated.

Yvette Williams, a member of the Council to Establish Academic Standards and founder of the Clark County Black Caucus, said it became state law for schools to integrate multicultural education in social studies curriculum after Assembly Bill 234 passed in 2015. As part of the bill, teachers licensed after July 1, 2015, had to submit proof of the completion of a course in multicultural education.

Yet, Williams said, there’s been little improvement in bringing diverse curriculum into the classroom.

She blames the lack of professional development for part of the problem.

“Teachers do know what the standards are,” Williams said. “A lot of teachers aren’t doing it because they don’t even know where to go to find that or they’re not comfortable, they don’t want to say something wrong or do something wrong. They want a road map. They want their district to help them.”

Getting new textbooks into the classroom could be easier said than done. Consider this: At Spring Valley High School, the U.S. history books have a timeline that ends before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Principal Tam Larnerd said. The school added a printed insert that summarizes key historic events that have taken place in the past two decades.

“There’s definitely a need for things to be updated, but schools can’t just buy whatever textbook they want,” Larnerd said.

But, Larnerd stresses, schools don’t need a textbook to give lessons on diversity and inclusion. Spring Valley offers a social studies elective called the African American experience, where students write poetry reacting to current events and learn about Black history beyond slavery.

Students don’t just learn about Thomas Edison, who invented the lightbulb, but they are also introduced to Lewis Latimer, the African American inventor who made important contributions to the invention of electric lighting. Marc Hyles, who teaches the one-year course, assigns students a project to research an invention created by a Black innovator.

About 80 kids are pre-registered for the class, which is an elective and optional. Sierra Vista and Arbor View also offer the course.

“I feel like it should be something mandatory,” said Helen Girma, 17, who is president of the Black Student Union and student body president at Spring Valley.

Girma, who graduated in late May and will attend Howard University, one of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities, gave up trying to learn about different groups of people from a textbook or a class. The only way she was going to understand a person’s experience who was different from her, she said, was to talk to them.

“I am a leader, my main job being student body president was to represent everyone, and it’s kind of hard when I’m not really educated on what all students go through,” Girma said.