BELEN — With the new school year barely under way, staff and administrators with Belen Consolidated Schools are starting the year-long process of revamping the district’s social studies curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade.

In addition to teachers, principals and academic coaches, parents and members of the public are asked to be part of the team that crafts the new curriculum, BCS Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez said.

“Standards are revisited, redone and updated regularly,” Sanchez said. “It’s not just social studies. Last year we did math and language arts. I think the last time social studies was redone might be as far back as the early 2000s.”

While it is the New Mexico Public Education Department’s role to set the standards — the broad ideas required — it is the role of the community to decide how those standards are going to be taught by choosing the materials which will be in the classroom, Sanchez said.

To help get parents and community members involved in the process, the district is holding a kickoff meeting at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 7, at the Belen High School auditorium.

“We decide how those standards are going to be taught, so there is that local control,” the superintendent said.

Sanchez said this isn’t a one-time meeting, and encouraged community members who are interested in being part of the curriculum team and its subcommittees to contact the superintendent’s office at 505-966-1003.

The first step in the process is to develop a plain-language understanding of what the standards are asking and what the goals are, he said.

“Even those of us in education, you put us in a room with these standards and we’re all going to come up with a different answer. It’s edu-speak,” Sanchez said, chuckling. “We are taking this to our community to make sure we’re all speaking the same language, that we have the same understanding.”

As the social studies standards were developed in New Mexico and other states, it wasn’t without controversy, the superintendent acknowledged.

“We want to reach community consensus. We’re not going to make everybody happy. Our belief is we need to be teaching facts, teaching students how to have polite discourse,” he said. “We need to be teaching students how to make their own decisions, not filling their brains with our beliefs. (As a teacher) I should be not sharing my beliefs or sharing my opinions, but rather sharing the facts, giving students resources and helping them develop skills so they can make their own decision.”

In the new social studies standards are “anchor standards,” which are broader concepts that provide continuity across the grade levels and are specifically defined for each level.

The anchor standards are civics and government, economics, geography, history, inquiry, ethnic, cultural and identity.

Touching on the standard of identity, Sanchez said there’s been concerns raised about children being taught to identify in a way that doesn’t match their birth gender.

“That’s not the way I take it. It’s ‘Where do they fit? What are their cultural and familial traditions? Their holidays?’ When I first started teaching, that’s something we did all the time. It’s not a wildly-new idea.”

One of the identity standards for kindergarten, for instance, is investigating how people work together to accomplish a common task, and how this benefits and challenges people when working together, said E. Renee Sanchez, BCS assistant superintendent of academics.

“The focus in all this is, ‘What is the desired outcome of (a certain) standard in simplified terms,’” said Renee Sanchez. “The most important thing throughout our teaching career is, ‘Teach them the facts. Keep your opinion out and your judgement, and then let the kids decide.’”

Some standards will touch on topics such as same-sex partnerships, the superintendent said.

“Kids are going to come from same-sex families. Talking about that doesn’t mean we’re for or against it, but we’re recognizing where our kids come from,” he said. “You might have conversations like, ‘Wow, so you have two moms or you have two dads, and you’re going through the same thing I am with one mom and one dad.’”

Some new standards include a return of civics and the addition of personal finance aspects, the superintendent said.

“So they’re not all controversial,” he said.

The district’s goal is to have unified curriculum materials from one publisher for all grade levels.

“We want parent feedback. We want them to have an idea of what we’re looking at and be able to say, ‘I like this. I don’t like this. I have concerns about this.’ We’re not just pushing something out there,” he said.

After the new curriculum is in place, the superintendent said if parents have objections to certain parts of lesson plans, their students will be provided with alternate assignments.

“The goal is to make sure all our students, regardless of where they come from, can see themselves in what we’re teaching,” Lawrence Sanchez said.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.