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State takes radical new approach to teaching major topic in public schools: 'We've decided to take young children seriously'

"I think the fact that New Jersey has those standards is, in a way, a protection that allows us to teach about what's actually happening."

New Jersey, New approach to teaching major topic in public schools

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The Garden State has gotten greener, and it hopes other states will follow. 

In 2020, New Jersey became the first state in the country to require that climate change is taught in public schools.  

With nearly 130 miles of coastline, the state is experiencing the effects of Earth's rising temperature in the form of more frequent flooding, extreme heat, and air pollution from wildfire smoke, NPR reports. Students are not exempt from the realities of our changing climate, and with this in mind, the state adopted standards to educate students on it from grades kindergarten to 12th and in nearly all subjects.

In 2023, $4.5 million in grants was set aside for the training and support of educators and to ensure that students in underserved districts have access to the same education. 

Laura Fredrick, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Education, told NPR that the state further appropriated $5 million toward educating students on our Earth's changing climate in its budget for 2024. 

Like most subjects, the sooner you start learning, the better you're able to understand. In the case of the planet's rising temperature and its effects, teaching kids from a young age is crucial. 

Lauren Madden, a professor of elementary science education at The College of New Jersey, expressed to NPR that she thinks climate change education is long overdue and hopes other states will adopt the same standards, emphasizing that it doesn't have to be complex for young students to understand what it means.

"We've decided to take young children seriously. We've decided that this is something we can unpack in the early years," she said. "We can really get into a lot of the foundational information, looking at graphs and photographs and maps and places that things have changed over time and get into some of that solution-building at an earlier age." 

Albert Morales, assistant principal at Rosa International Middle School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, spoke to the importance of state-mandated education as far as our changing climate is concerned, as it protects both students and teachers from efforts to deny the education. 

"Because we are a public school and if they are in the standards, then those are things that we are mandated to teach," Morales told NPR. "So I think the fact that New Jersey has those standards is, in a way, a protection that allows us to teach about what's actually happening."

The efforts have paid off, too. Lucy Webster, a junior at Hopewell Valley Central High in New Jersey, who as a little kid was scared by the extreme changes in weather going on around her and missing school because of hurricanes, said of a teacher, "Her telling me why these were happening made me feel like I could do something about it even though I was like 11." 

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