WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange Superintendent of Schools Scott Cascone spent an hour talking to parents and students live on Instagram on June 10, addressing the need for a more inclusive social studies curriculum and what the district will do to make staff more diverse. He spent a large percentage of the time talking about “decolonizing” curriculum, from preschool through 12th grade.
“While that term of ‘decolonizing’ curriculum can be a little bit heady or a little bit esoteric, I think when I look at that term I see it in a number of ways,” Cascone said in the livestream. “One way is that, when we look at our curriculum materials, the resources that our students have access to, whether that be library books or whether they be textual resources or any resources that we offer, they are equally representative of all our students and the backgrounds they come from, obviously including black students as well.”
According to Cascone, West Orange writes curriculum based on the New Jersey Student Learning Standards. The district is aiming to go beyond those standards when the administration writes new social studies curriculum this summer.
“I’ve heard students say before, and it really resonates with me, particularly when we’re talking about black history, that ‘my history is more than slavery,’” Cascone said. “That’s a really important viewpoint to hear. While I think that the curriculum goes beyond that to some extent, is it truly honoring black history, as well as Hispanic history, as well as Asian history? Particularly when students are young, because those are extremely formative years. Certainly that happens in the home as well, in many cases, but as a school district what are we doing to provide students with educational experiences that are providing a complete picture of their history, both of tragedies and triumphs.”
While Cascone mentioned Hispanic and Asian history as subjects important to include in the social studies curriculum, he specifically talked about the need to expand black history in the curriculum.
“To the best of my knowledge, the treatment of ancient African civilizations and empires is barely addressed in the New Jersey Student Learning Standards,” he said. “We know that these civilizations were some of the most advanced and learned civilizations that existed on earth, and yet they’re not really discussed. We need to ensure the histories are reflected in the curriculum. How validating is that, not only to learn that your ancestors were slaves, but to learn that your ancestors created some of the most advanced civilizations of all time?”
The social studies curriculum is going to be rewritten, but Cascone also said that false narratives that are often taught need to be addressed as well.
“One of the hallmarks of 21st-century education is critical thinking,” he said. “That, one of the main skills we’re charged with instilling in students, is the ability to critically think and the ability to draw their own research. I think that’s as much about the process and the types of exercise we teach, to have a healthy skepticism of the information they read and the information they see. We can also take a more head-on approach to that and call attention to the fact that there are certain inherent biases in the way information and events have been presented in the past.”
Several people asked questions about hiring and diversity training for staff members, and Cascone said that while the hiring of 10 black, 10 Hispanic, two multirace and three Asian staff members last year was good, the district wants to continue to build on it. The demographic makeup of the staff is not reflective of the student demographics.
“It’s about networking, it’s about putting ourselves in a position where various organizations can help us,” Cascone said. “We want to send a clear message that West Orange is a district that values diversity in its professional staff, but also ensure that we have access to the largest number of diverse candidates as possible. You post an ad and receive applicants, and you’re limited to whomever might have seen that ad. We need to do a better job of establishing relationships with institutions of higher learning and state associations that can put us in touch with a larger pool of diverse candidates. We need to have a critical eye on that.”