Following a petition to expand classroom reading curriculum throughout the Burbank Unified School District, two high school students are now members of a district committee with a similar goal.
Burbank students Sophia Moore and Adelina Hernandez are local proponents of the Diversify Our Narrative campaign, which contains guidelines for implementing a required reading list with more novels telling stories from people of color in schools throughout the state. After receiving a heavy flow of petition signatures, the district reached out on behalf of the BUSD Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, offering the two students spots on a subcommittee to tackle the lack of diversity in Burbank educational programs.
This Curriculum and Instruction Subcommittee consists of discussions between teachers, parents, and other administration personnel in which techniques to structure a diverse and anti-racist school program are being explored.
Moore, now a senior at John Burroughs High School, says that the subcommittee experience has opened up an extensive dialogue regarding how class readings impact the Burbank student body.
“We talk about…the student experience dealing with the books that we read,” Moore said. “How does that kind of book and the way the topics of that book are dealt with, how does that impact students of color?”
Discussions are set to continue through the year, and May of 2021 is a prospective date for the subcommittee to submit a proposed list of books to incorporate in K through 12 classes, although the timeline is predicted to be ongoing for the group.
Local teacher and subcommittee member Emily Weisberg joined the gathering, which began earlier this summer, in order to gain knowledge on how the BUSD can improve the traditional teachings that reside in California classrooms. Weisberg says she has seen first-hand how static, limited class modules can affect students and notes the value of representation.
“As a teacher, there is nothing more important for our students than to see themselves in the history we teach, the literature we read, and the scientists, mathematicians and artists we explore,” Weisberg said. “Curriculum and instruction have remained pretty stagnant in regards to what, and how, we teach so this was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the work being done within our district and find ways to deepen, and support that work.”
Not only is the subcommittee geared towards discovering beneficial additions to curriculum, but also how current teachings can create lasting experiences for students of color.
“I’ve learned how some books are actually harming children, or the way the books taught have brought on trauma for some students,” said Nadra Ostrom, subcommittee member and BUSD parent. “The lack of diversity in literature and lack of sensitivity in teaching books with challenging content around race is very harmful to our students.”
Beyond literature, another subject which may be a focus in future talks is history. Like English classes being addressed with novels that display accurate experiences for people of color, classroom history texts often have a narrow point-of-view which subcommittee members hope to broaden.
“In general… the curriculum can do a much better job of teaching accurate U.S. History, showing more perspectives besides the predominantly white male perspective, include more groups of people, include more individuals who have made contributions to our society,” Ostrom said.
BUSD parent TeAnne Chennault became involved in the DEI Committee in 2018 after experiencing personal ignorance and racism within the school district. Chennault initially formed a group with two other local parents raising children of color who shared similar experiences, which later evolved into interactions with BUSD members regarding the best ways to introduce a committee for inclusivity and equity for students of color.
“So many of us had experiences in the schools where our children were exposed to racist encounters or, at the very least, instances that clearly showed there was an intolerance and an ignorance in how to treat children of color, specifically black children,” Chennault said.
Following BUSD Superintendent Matt Hill’s initiative to create a stronger framework for the committee, which took place at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, Chennault has seen a greater amount of participation in the DEI Committee. Chennault hopes this shift will indicate a move towards equal representation for all children in the BUSD.
“I want to make sure my daughter, and all the kids who look like her, receive a well-rounded education within the Burbank school system,” Chennault said. “I also want to make sure their unique identity as black and brown children are respected and they see themselves reflected in materials, curriculum, teaching staff, administration, all touchpoints that help children thrive.”
From a student perspective, being a subcommittee member has shown Moore the differences one can make through sharing their personal accounts and taking real action towards change.
“There [are] things that I can do and say and use my experience as a student to positively impact the things that have been impacting me,” Moore said.
“I think this whole thing has really gotten me to be hyper-aware of how much is lacking and how much power I as a student have to change the fault in our curriculum.”