Robert Nixon is in his seventh year as principal at Governor Livingston High School, which serves 960 students in Berkeley Heights. Like most comprehensive high schools, Governor Livingston has a mixture of formal and informal after-school clubs for its students.

At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, Nixon was approached about forming an Understanding Asian Cultures Club. Students wanted their classmates, teachers, and community members to understand the misconceptions many non-Asians have about their history, heritage, and culture.

“It was a no-brainer,” Nixon says. “We have some great student advocacy groups across the board, and we want to give them platforms to do their work while knowing they have the unwavering support of the faculty and administration.”

The club, which started as an informal group with a volunteer adviser, has grown rapidly, especially in the wake of a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since the start of the pandemic. Galvanized by the March shootings in Atlanta that killed six women of Asian descent, club members have hosted a roundtable discussion on the rise in hate crimes, helped lead a “Stop AAPI Hate” community rally, hosted discussions on the Diwali religious festival and Chinese New Year and spotlighted Asian Americans as part of Women’s History Month.

Similar efforts are taking place in schools across New Jersey to draw more attention to the challenges faced by Asian Americans, who now make up more than 10% of the state’s 9 million residents. Earlier this year, state Sen. Vin Gopal introduced legislation that would mandate the teaching of AAPI history in the curriculum. Similar bills are being considered in at least eight other states, and Illinois has signed a requirement into law.

“Asians are the fastest growing immigrant group in the United States, in part because the term encompasses people from the Philippines to India,” says Maureen Costello, executive director of the Center for Antiracist Education at Stand for Children. “We can’t wait for 10 years to change the myths.”

Many of the challenges Asian American students deal with — poverty, language and cultural barriers, teachers who don’t look like them — are no different from other communities of color. However, these students also are facing what AAPI groups have dubbed the “model minority myth” — the perception that Asian Americans are collectively more successful, smarter and more studious than their classmates. As a result, many of the challenges Asian American students face are ignored or pushed aside, especially in highly diverse communities.

“Anti-Asian sentiment completely erases the incredible diversity of people from Asia and particularly Asian Americans here in the U.S.,” Costello says. “Not understanding the diversity of the population, and not knowing the history, contributes to the perpetuation of myths and to the biases that Asian Americans face daily. Many of our kids are stuck in a state of perpetual otherness.”

Battling Stereotypes and Racism Statistics bear this out. According to the Stop AAPI Hate Youth Campaign, one quarter of Asian American children and young adults reported they were targets of racism over the past year. Kani Ilangovan, who leads Make Us Visible New Jersey, notes that incidents of bias against Asian Americans rose 82% from 2019 to 2020 in the state, and more were reported in the first six months of 2021 than in all of last year.

Make Us Visible is a coalition of students, parents, educators, and community members who are advocating for AAPI studies across subject areas in the K-12 curriculum. The group has helped develop AAPI youth alliances in four New Jersey districts (Livingston, Edison, Ridgewood, and West Windsor-Plainsboro) and is working with groups such as the Asian American Education Project and the South Asian American Digital Archive to provide resources to schools.

“There’s a misperception of Asian Americans as forever foreigners,” says Ilangovan. “The first Filipino Americans have been here since 1587. We need to show what an integral part of the country that Asian Americans continue to be, and changing the curricula is an important place to start that work.”

Dr. Rosetta Treece has helped oversee the development of “a robust and inclusive curricula” around AAPI for the Hopewell Valley Regional School District, where 12.3% of students are Asian American/Pacific Islander. Working with Make Us Visible, the district has implemented AAPI lessons in classrooms across all grades and provided professional development around AAPI issues to staff.

At a webinar earlier this year, Treece noted her district has started using a “culturally responsive scorecard” that has allowed Hopewell Valley to “really examine whose voices were missing” in the curriculum. Treece, who oversaw the district’s curriculum and instruction prior to being named Hopewell Valley superintendent in July, says Hopewell Valley’s students are “social justice warriors” who are “challenging us to make our schools a better place.”

In Leonia, where Asian Americans make up 40% of the 2,000 students, the school board was quick to pass a resolution supporting the district’s AAPI youth following the Atlanta shootings. The resolution, however, was just the latest in a series of steps taken by the board to address equity issues.

In the summer of 2020, board members passed a diversity and equity plan that includes district-sponsored test preparation courses for high school students as well as stronger policies on bullying, harassment, restorative justice and hiring practices. The district also is working with Montclair State University on an equity audit of Leonia’s policies and procedures.

“This work all comes down to one word: communication,” says Leonia school board member Mary Albanese. “If you don’t welcome open and honest communication with your school board, your community will feel it doesn’t have a voice in the conversation. We have a concrete message we send to our students, that they are the activists of change. They have to do something to make the changes they want to see, and we have to be there to support them.”

What Can Boards Do? Elected representation for Asian Americans — youth and adults — remains an issue in New Jersey. According to Jersey Promise, an organization that advocates for people of Asian origin or descent, only 90 of New Jersey’s nearly 9,000 elected positions belong to Asian Americans. School board members make up 83% of that number.

In Leonia, four of the 10 school board members are Asian American, reflecting the district’s demographics. Albanese, the daughter of a Korean mother and Polish father, grew up in New Jersey and settled in Leonia in the late 1990s in part due to its diverse population.

“I’m very proud of this community and the people that have stepped up to serve our students,” Albanese says. “I vowed when I was growing up that I didn’t want my own child to distinguish others by their color, race or religion. The kids growing up in this town are not using the stereotypes and racial markers that were used when we were growing up, and that’s a good thing.”

So, what can New Jersey districts do to develop a culture of inclusivity? Costello, who was director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance initiative for a decade, says school boards should set “some very explicit expectations” about what it means to be welcome on campus.

“Don’t make assumptions about how open and how welcoming you are and how valued every student and family is,” Costello says. “Really interrogate it and ask, ‘Are we doing everything we should?’ And then set expectations for the staff that are very, very clear.”

Treece recommends that districts not use stand-alone courses devoted to a single ethnic or racial group, but instead focus on a curriculum that “allows us to teach our collective history.”

“We have great resources and textbooks that were created in reaction to tragedies across the country, and now we’re uncovering all of this AAPI history because we had another tragedy,” Treece said during the Make Us Visible webinar. “We find that things get better as we start to educate ourselves and our children, and then we decide we don’t need these courses so we just pluck them out. … We need to make sure this curriculum is embedded deeply in all subject areas as much as we can, so that someone doesn’t decide this is fixed now and we need to stop doing it.”

Nixon agrees. He believes diversity initiatives must take a broad, inclusive view that give students “the platforms to do their work” while knowing they “have the unwavering support of the faculty and administration.”

This fall, Governor Livingston’s Understanding Asian Cultures Club has applied to be a formal school organization. The school’s diversity committee, which represents all student groups, has been tasked with “taking a look at the school community as a whole, so we know what’s working, what’s not working, and what we need to do.”

“This is not just about spreading the message but doing everything possible we can to develop a culture of inclusivity,” Nixon says. “There’s so much work to be done in our society and in our country right now in these areas that it can be an overwhelming task for the leader of a school or the leader of a district. But we have to do it. We have to reach out to the greater community and let everyone know this is no place for discrimination, no place for hate, and no place for actions that hurt others in our school community.”

Glenn Cook is the former executive editor of American School Board Journal, the magazine of the National School Boards Association. A freelance writer and photographer, he remains a contributing editor to ASBJ.