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Star Tribune writers tracking education issue

Mpls. district officials apologize for offensive books given to teachers

Minneapolis Public Schools officials admit they failed to vet literacy training materials that exhibit racial and cultural stereotypes.

Earlier this month, some teachers received training to prepare them to use a new early literacy curriculum. They received “Little Books” that they could use to teach literacy skills to the district’s kindergarten through second grade students.

But the books contained images that teachers found offensive. A book titled “Lazy Lucy” showed a black girl on the cover, and another book called “Nieko, the Hunting Girl,” with a picture of an American Indian girl and her father. 

"Due to staffing shifts and the desire to get a program in place for the new school year, the books were not comprehensively vetted,” said Interim Superintendent Michael Goar in a statement. "We now know this was a mistake. We regret that this happened. We will do better."

The books were part of a larger curriculum that the district purchased in July from a Utah-based company called Reading Horizons. The district paid the company $1.2 million.

The district says they immediately pulled the books after teachers raised concerns, and no students were exposed to the materials. District officials also say they have asked Reading Horizons to write new books.

“Teachers will be central to that conversation,” said Chief Academic Officer Susanne Griffin. “These revisions won’t just be for Minneapolis, but for districts across the country."

The issue was first raised by a local education blogger, Sarah Lahm. Teachers and community members were also upset that the district contracted with a company that identifies one of its core values as “faith.” The Reading Horizons website says a employee survey showed its employees “believe in a higher purpose of life. We seek to do His will and to achieve balance in our lives."

The district says what was described “as employee responses to an inquiry about core values should not be characterized as corporate values."

“The values are not promoted through the program,” Griffin said. 


David Branch, a former administrator, wrote on the district’s Facebook page that “this is an embarrassment that cannot be fixed by changing the books."

“Show that you have courageous leadership and take action to not work with this company,” Branch wrote. He posted the pictured example above on Facebook.

Goar said for the time being the district will continue to work with Reading Horizons.

“Research shows this program has been successful in improving student outcomes across the country, including outcomes in diverse district like ours."

Reading Horizons officials did not return messages seeking comment Thursday. On the company’s Facebook page, officials apologized and vowed to change the content of their books.

“It would be a shame for anyone to avoid our products while we work to resolve our weakness and work to better represent a variety of cultures,” the company wrote.

St. Paul school board pulls plug on televised criticism

The St. Paul school board voted Tuesday night to stop televising and streaming the public-comments portion of its meetings, a move critics say strikes a blow against open government.

The action has the effect of removing from public view what often have been remarks critical of the district, the board and administrative leaders.

In fact, a May 2014 appearance before the St. Paul school board by five district teachers pushing for greater expectations of students and consequences for those who misbehave is credited with helping spark a Caucus for Change movement that's sought to bring new leadership to the board.

The change, which will go into effect in September, still allows for a public-comment period at 5:30 p.m., but it will be separate from the board meeting, which will start at 6:05 p.m. with the cameras rolling.

Board Member Anne Carroll argued that the change is part of a series of moves related to the collection of public comments that should give citizens a greater voice. She cited a new policy of taking online submissions that will be documented in the same way as in-person comments.

Board Member John Brodrick, who opposed the move in what was a 5-1 vote, said that having people speak to the board but not to the public via broadcast "betrayed the meaning of public comment."

Al Oertwig, a former board member, said the district has been broadcasting public statements to the board for more than 20 years. Currently, the comment period begins at 5:30 p.m., and when finished, gives way to an agenda item recognizing the "good work provided by outstanding district employees."

In recent months, testimony has included efforts by parents to rescue school programs from cuts. In November, a group of Ramsey Middle School parents who were frustrated by a delayed response to unruly behavior spoke during the public-comment period -- some angered by what they claimed was a last-minute move by the district to dissuade them from appearing through delivery of a school action plan that day.

During the public-comment period on Tuesday, three people spoke against the move to halt the broadcasts, with Joe Nathan, director of the St. Paul-based Center for School Change, saying viewers deserved to hear what the public was thinking and saying, even if it was not flattering to the district.

"Democracy is messy," he said.

In Minneapolis, people now can go to that district's website and pull up an archived recording of public comments at its board meetings -- a change that went into effect on Aug. 11.

"We believe an ongoing dialogue with the public is crucial to ensuring the Minneapolis community remains part of helping our kids graduate ready for college and career," Board Chairwoman Jenny Arneson said in a statement.