The Fight for Climate Education in West Orange, NJ!
In 2020, New Jersey updated its curriculum standards (the NJSLS) to mandate NJ students be taught “Climate Change across all content areas… providing them opportunities to develop a deep understanding of the science behind the changes and to explore the solutions our world desperately needs”. As a result, every student in the state will be required to learn about climate change in their science, art, world language, and career readiness classes come the 2021-2022 school year, and in their health, social studies, and computer science classes in 2022-2023 (the only subjects excluded were Math and ELA, which are updated on a different year). This puts NJ at the forefront of climate education in the nation.
However, the NJSLS standards are broad, and school districts have a good deal of flexibility in how they decide to implement these changes on the ground. As with all situations like this, it can be expected that some school districts will be taking these changes more seriously than others. And many whose focus is, understandably, solely on adapting to COVID-19 may brush over the updates or simply copy and paste curriculum from elsewhere that may not fit their district or the present situation.
This is the worry of high school students in the West Orange school district. West Orange High School’s Fight For Green environmental club has therefore made it a priority to get students involved in the implementation of climate education to ensure that their district takes full advantage of the new NJSLS. After a meeting with the West Orange school system’s superintendent, they drafted a comprehensive memo detailing the ways students should be involved in climate education, what they expected to see in the new content, and their questions for the district about where they were in the process. This includes demands that students are included in all meetings about the development of curriculum and, once the standards are put in place, the use of high schoolers as student teachers to help elementary students learn about climate change (as well as enrich high schoolers’ own experiences). Regarding the actual content of the new curriculum, FFG members are looking to see West Orange go above and beyond the new NJSLS standards by including hands-on student involvement in local environmental issues, lessons on climate justice and environmental racism, and interdisciplinary climate issues.
They sent this memo to the superintendent, assistant superintendent and overseer of curriculum, and the science supervisor along with a request to meet with the assistant superintendent on these requests. To bring the issue to the attention of the Board of Education, several FFG members also attended the February Board of Ed meeting where they raised all of their points in the memo in public comments.
The NJSLS updates are a huge step forward, but they are not enough all on their own. In a climate crisis, radical changes to everyday life must be made, both to adapt and to use current issues as an opportunity to simply do things better. This includes education. The NJSLS cited “the passion students have shown for this critical issue” when it explained the inclusion of climate education in the new standards, reflecting that students should and must be included in the teaching of knowledge so directly linked to our futures. As young people, we know that sometimes older generations need a push to get us where we need to be, and right now NJ schools need to not just fulfill these standards but use them as an opportunity to give their students the best climate education possible. West Orange is just one school district where students hope to push their administration to do just this, and FFG members hope that other local student groups may soon follow suit.