Lower school adjusts curriculum


Henry Aquino

Fourth grade general studies teacher Ronit Miller sits with students on DEIJ Day to learn about relevant topics.

Ellie Fischman, Managing Editor, Copy

Clustered in the gym, Lower School students learn about poverty in America at their monthly morning meeting. Each month, they tackle a new topic in relation to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ). January’s topic was poverty awareness and February’s was Black History Month.

In addition to monthly school-wide morning meetings, the Lower School had a DEIJ Day of Learning on Dec. 22. Students focused on recognizing and breaking stereotypes about marginalized groups. 

These initiatives are emblematic of an increased focus on providing diverse and inclusive learning experiences at CESJDS. Activities range from reading more diverse picture books to kindergarteners to discussing diversity in Israel with fifth graders. 

Principal Rabbi Matthew Bellas said that DEIJ education is necessary as a part of teaching basic values to JDS students.

“I often come back to the basic saying, ‘Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten,’” Lower School Principal Rabbi Matthew Bellas said. “You learn how to share, you learn how to be a good friend and you learn how to care for other people.”

According to Dr. Kimberly Sherk, the Lower School Language Arts, Social Studies and DEIJ Coordinator and Sarah Roark, the Lower School Head Media Specialist and T’filah Specialist, the Lower School strives to be inclusive in their media. For instance, they try to find books that represent different groups based on “physical ability, body type, race, religion, culture, gender, age, socio-economic status and family structure.”

Aside from more structured curriculum adjustments, a large element of the Lower School’s changes regarding DEIJ revolves around addressing natural questions that students have. A lot of these questions center around gender identity, which is Lower School Assistant Principal Rebecca Prigal’s primary focus when it comes to DEIJ education.

“[Topics surrounding gender] come up organically because children grow up and develop at different stages of their lives in a lot of ways related to their identity,” Prigal said.

According to Sherk, DEIJ initiatives at the Lower School have been successful and have mostly received positive reception from the JDS community. At the same time, Sherk said that she has faced some challenges in finding research about DEIJ education for very young students.

“By the time we get to fourth or fifth grade, it’s much easier,” Sherk said. “But making sure we approach topics in a way that students are ready for… [and] finding good research for the younger kids is the most challenging part of it for me.”

Though most parents are enthusiastic about the Lower School’s DEIJ initiatives, according to Bellas, a small percentage have expressed concerns. Some parents worry that these changes are politically motivated. While it is infrequent, Prigal said that there have been parents who have had their children opt out of lessons about gender inclusion. 

Minor backlash aside, according to Vice-President of the Board and Co-Chair of the DEIJ Parent Committee Brian Liss, these issues are an extension of the education that students already receive at JDS.

“From my perspective, DEIJ is not a political issue,” Liss said. “It’s reflective of our core values and the school deals with DEIJ not from a political perspective, but from an educational perspective.”