Amid a backdrop of outrage from parents and community leaders, Minneapolis school board members voted Tuesday to cancel a contract with a company that provided books that some teachers found laden with cultural and racial stereotypes.
Before the vote, interim Superintendent Michael Goar acknowledged that mistakes were made in paying $1.2 million to Reading Horizons, a Utah-based company that provided the books as part of a curriculum for kindergarten through third grade. Teachers who got the books this summer were astounded and repelled by the stereotyped characters and gender roles, including an illustration of an American Indian girl titled “Nieko the Hunting Girl” and another with a black girl called “Lazy Lucy.”
The books reportedly were returned before being handed out to students.
Goar said he and his team failed on a number of fronts, including not following policies in purchasing the books and failing to recognize the derogatory material. “I’m deeply sorry you’re in this predicament,” he told the board. “I deeply apologize that you have to do my job.”
Telling board members to hold him accountable, he said he was committed to ensuring policies are followed and that the community is engaged in helping review future reading materials. But policies alone won’t prevent a similar problem, he said.
The board’s vote to cancel the Reading Horizons contract came after angry parents and community leaders crowded the boardroom, waving blue hankies, raising signs and forming a long line to voice their outrage in the allotted three minutes given to each speaker. The board, before the start of the meeting, proposed holding small group listening sessions outside the boardroom. But Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, spoke on behalf of many in the audience who wanted to voice their opinions in public.
Chaun Webster, a parent of two children, said the district should strive to attain critical literacy. “Functional literacy is a low bar,” he said.
Tyson Smith, president of Reading Horizons, attended Tuesday’s meeting with the hope of publicly apologizing for the offensive material. But he said board Chair Jenny Arneson asked that he not speak at the meeting.
Listening to the speakers’ anger and frustration, Smith said he was disappointed he couldn’t “tell the people in the room how sorry we were for the role we played.” But he also wanted to explain the lessons the company has learned from the incident in becoming more culturally competent.
The company is putting together an advisory committee that is reviewing its curriculum and will provide cultural and diversity training for its employees.
With the focus on student achievement, Smith said he suggested to Goar a couple weeks ago that his company would refund some of the money or make restitution and continue its contract with the company, which would include setting a benchmark for closing the achievement gap.
With the board’s vote to cancel the contract, the district will explore options to get its money back.
Smith said he couldn’t comment on that, saying that’s something for his company and the district to work out.