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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Winter 2008
Vol. 35 No. 1

World Religions in Modesto:
Findings from a Curricular Innovation

Emile Lester

Beginning in the fall of 2000, the Modesto City Schools district required that all high school students participate in an extended course on world religions.1 The course takes place in the 9th grade and lasts for 9 weeks. The first two weeks of the course examine the basic principles of religious freedom, and America’s heritage of religious freedom. The subsequent seven weeks of the course examine major Eastern and Western religious traditions including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikkhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism.

The course was made possible by the confluence of two events. In 1999, the superintendent became particularly concerned with incidents of harassment of gay and lesbian students in Modesto’s schools. Members of gay and lesbian civil rights groups were invited to high school campuses as part of the district’s “safe schools” policy, which angered religious conservatives in Modesto’s community. Meetings open to the community and mediated by Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, were organized to resolve this dispute. These meetings produced a wide-ranging discussion about what sort of curriculum would be most consistent with the safe schools policy. A consensus eventually emerged that a world religions course would be consistent with this policy.

At the same time, California eliminated its social studies requirements for the 9th grade and allowed each school district to decide whether and what type of social studies courses to offer. Curriculum administrators and social studies teachers consulted and agreed that the time would be best spent by implementing a semester-long course divided equally between discussion of world geography and world religion. After the basics of the course had been designed and a textbook identified, the district sent letters to religious leaders in the Modesto community to request their participation in an advisory council to review the course. The board was composed of representatives from the Protestant, Catholic, Islamic, Sikh, Jewish, and Greek Orthodox communities. Members of other religious communities were solicited but chose not to participate. The course was implemented after approval of the course from this advisory board and a unanimous vote of approval from Modesto’s school board.

The following discussion identifies significant aspects of the Modesto course and the Modesto community aimed at providing a balanced assessment to help determine whether the Modesto course provides a model that other school districts might consider adopting. The material is based upon interviews with 7 teachers of the course, the superintendent, three administrators, 3 school board members, and with 5 religious leaders in the Modesto community.



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