Cultural Relevance in the Public Schools: Ariela Rothstein


When Ariela Rothstein was in high school, she soon came to realize that she was having a very different experience than her brother. “We had different strengths,” she said. She was a nearly-straight-A student while he was more social.

“I walked into classrooms where I felt like teachers expected me to do well, and he walked into classrooms where it was the opposite,” she said.

She had plenty of ideas about how her teachers could do better jobs with different types of students, and she knew her classmates had ideas of their own, so she created the “Best Practices” club, where students observed teachers in the classroom and offered constructive criticism.

Thus began her life path of bringing greater inclusivity into the public school system. After earning a B.A. in political science and a teaching certificate at Yale, she took a job teaching social studies at East Brooklyn Community High School, a “transfer” high school for students aged 16 to 21 returning to the classroom after dropping out or falling behind.

“At some point they found school hard, or they were sick, or their families moved around,” said Rothstein, who now, at 26, is History department chair.

Finding that her state-mandated curriculum included little-to-nothing about the Caribbean, where nearly all of her students’ families are from, she integrated the region’s history and culture into the curriculum, and noticed an immediate difference. Students became more engaged, writing higher-level essays and making more in-depth presentations. “They’re doing more work, more critical thinking, more college-level assignments,” she said.

Rothstein has continued her quest to make curriculum more culturally relevant — in a city where half the public schools students are immigrants or the children of immigrants — through the New York Collective of Radical Educators. There she co-founded the Teach Dream Working group, which created a resource guide for undocumented students.

All of this work has been spurred by the Jewish values Rothstein learned through Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a program exploring Jewish texts, pluralism and social responsibility, and, even more importantly, through her parents.

“I was raised in a household,” she said, “where Judaism was not separate from social justice.”

Full circle: Rothstein lives in Williamsburg, 10 blocks from the then-Jewish-now-hipster Roebling Street where her grandfather grew up. The building she teaches in — which still has carved tablets on the front — used to be the Brownsville JCC. Fifty years ago, she said, “I had family married in that building.”