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New Program Sparking Courageous Conversations at Elementary School

Hillside Elementary School launched a program this week aimed at sparking courageous conversations.

The fourth grade program, known as Hillside Sparks, began with teachers and librarians presenting lessons on identity.

“At Hillside, we’re working to promote an inclusive environment where every child, staff member, and family group that comes into the school can see themselves here,” said Hillside Elementary School Principal Amy Cazes. “I think the work we are doing around race and racism is critical in helping young children to understand what it means to be inclusive.”

“Research shows that children can be taught to be biased,” said Director of Diversity and ENL Coordinator Jenice Mateo-Toledo. That means “we need to talk about race and bias earlier” in students’ lives.

Hillside is following the New York State Education Department resource on Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework. The framework focuses on affirming racial, linguistic, and cultural identities, developing students’ abilities to connect across differences, and elevating historically marginalized voices. Staff hope to teach their students to embrace their own identities while celebrating the identities of others.

“When we were working on this, we were really conscious about making sure the lessons were age appropriate,” said Library-Media Specialist Jamie Nedwick.

“We’ve used our research and the students’ perspectives on this to find out where this fits in the elementary school education,” added Mateo-Toledo.

Using state guidance, Hillside teachers voluntarily developed the curriculum over the summer. In doing so, they worked to create a curriculum that made the students comfortable as well as the teachers themselves.

“We put ourselves out there because it’s important,” said Nedwick. “We aren’t afraid to approach these topics and write curriculum on our own.”

Fourth grade teacher Debbie Troop said, “I am really excited by the fact that we approached this holistically,” adding that the curriculum is not in response to a specific event.

“We are preparing our students to go off into a diverse world,” added Mateo-Toledo.

The Sparks program focuses on supporting students who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Hillside also has started an Affinity Group where students come together based on shared identity to explore their experiences in a safe space. “We were talking over the summer about other Affinity Groups in the district and said ‘we should be doing something like this at Hillside’,” said BIPOC Affinity Group leader and physical education teacher Ericka Melvin. 

“As a district we realized that race is not a problem, racism is the problem,” said Mateo- Toledo. “We are addressing racism but unless we also address race, kids are going to say and do things that are harmful not only to others but to themselves.”

Both the Sparks program and the Affinity Group at Hillside are designed to build a strong foundation for Hastings students. Although they are in uncharted territory, the educators behind the initiative said they were undeterred.

“We are trying to establish a solid foundation for what they are being taught, why they are being taught it, and give them an open forum for discussion,” said Mateo-Toledo. “We want them to be knowledgeable because that’s why we are here, to give them knowledge.”

“We are trailblazers,” said Nedwick. “We wanted to do this and we’re not afraid to do it.”