Monthly Archives: September 2015

Reading Horizons protesters shut down Minneapolis school board meeting

September 30, 2015

Think the Reading Horizons “issue” is over for the Minneapolis Public Schools?

The protest shut down the Minneapolis school board meeting

Not quite.

A loosely knit group of around 25 protesters–armed with a game show script, homemade signs, and a band of colorful ribbons gathered by Million Artist Movement reps–brought down the September 29 Minneapolis school board meeting. 

On a sheet plastered with images from the “Little Books” Reading Horizons initially sold to the Minneapolis Public Schools, the protesters called for “Change Now!” and demanded the district end its relationship with Reading Horizons. The sheet also called for interim superintendent Michael Goar to publicly apologize, and stated that Goar–or someone–should be fired over the district’s business deal with Utah-based Reading Horizons.

After first gathering in the light filled space outside the Davis Center board room, the group trooped into the official meeting room, chanting, “Whose tax dollars? Our tax dollars!” and “Whose children? Our children!”

image

Getting ready to march in

The protesters then took over the board meeting (which was a business meeting where a key levy vote had to be made) and began rattling off questions in mock game show format.

First up was this: What is the gender and race of all members of the Reading Horizons board? 

The answer? All white males.

Another question: Is there any independent research that shows that Reading Horizons is a successful program? 

Answer: No! The research that proves Reading Horizons works was made by…Reading Horizons!

The board quickly voted to adjourn the meeting and retreat, with District 6 representative Tracine Asberry choosing to remain seated. Board members Rebecca Gagnon and Nelson Inz filtered in and out of the board room as well, with Inz eventually sitting down with the protesters to listen to their demands and concerns. (Goar also returned to sit on the edge of the protesters for a few moments, but made no public comment.)

804 signatures

A reference to a letter sent by protesters Shana Dickson, David Boehnke, and Chaun Webster. Click to access it.

As the board members shuffled out of the room, a stunned hush fell over the meeting room, with Minneapolis Public Schools staff members–some of them clearly outraged, and some of them intrigued–lingering on the fringes of the protest circle.

What happened next probably won’t make it to the evening news, but it should: the protesters sat together, introduced themselves, and explained why they were there.

One woman said her white children, who attend school in Minneapolis, have had “every privilege box checked” so far. They need anti-racist classroom books and curriculum as much as anyone else, she stated.

A current Minneapolis teacher was also there, and said she had just come from a Reading Horizons training session, where K-2 teachers were being shown how to use the company’s phonics curriculum. The teacher said she was not impressed with the training, and described another problem: some teachers at the training had to be called back to their classrooms, as MPS lacks enough subs to cover so many teacher absences at once.

Here is a snapshot of what the protesters were discussing (Including arts educator Barbara Cox’s input);

Further video from the disrupted board meeting shows why the Reading Horizons story has not just blown away with the reassurance that the offending books have been removed (and the accompanying consolation that no children were exposed to them):

The evening ended with board members pushing through their required levy vote, amid a screeching sound system and the further shouts of protesters:

The protesters dissipated long after the board members did, with promises to return for the next regularly scheduled board meeting on October 13.

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Upset? Reading Horizons wants to meet with you

September 21, 2015

Reading Horizons redux: What’s happening now with the Minneapolis Public Schools’ controversial dealings with Utah-based Reading Horizons? Read on. If you would like to start at the beginning of this story, here is a link to the first blog post I wrote about it: Phonics or indoctrination? Minneapolis teacher training takes a step backwards

Shaun Walsh was the first person to speak out at the September 8 Minneapolis school board meeting. Walsh used her three minutes of public comment time–which the district does not record–to assail the Minneapolis Public Schools’ problematic $1.2 million deal with the Reading Horizons company.Image result for can we just be friends

Now, Reading Horizons would like to meet with her, to clear the air.

At the board meeting, which Reading Horizons officials apparently wanted to attend, until Minneapolis interim superintendent Michael Goar’s office told them not to, the school board voted to sternly chastise Reading Horizons, but also to continue working with the company (perhaps because the district will lose the $1.2 million it has already spent on this).

That night, the degree of forgiveness some board members and district officials were willing to grant Reading Horizons led one parent in attendance to ask–in frustration–whether Reading Horizons was being treated like a person and not a for-profit company. Also, board member Tracine Asberry wondered aloud why the same level of forgiveness and consideration was not being shown to district staff and families who were upset over the Reading Horizons deal.

The forgiveness has continued since then, with Minneapolis officials busily trying to arrange meetings with disgruntled community members, on Reading Horizons’ behalf.

Here is the email Walsh received from school board administrator Jesse Winkler, on September 17:

Dear Community Member,

Reading Horizons has requested to speak individually with community members who spoke at our last Board of Education Meeting.  They would like to offer you the opportunity to hear directly from someone on the Reading Horizons team.  Please let us know by 5:00 p.m. Monday, September 21st if you would like us to share your contact information with a member of the Reading Horizons team.

Interim superintendent Michael Goar; photo from StarTribune

Jesse Winkler | Jesse.Winkler@mpls.k12.mn.us

Administrator to the Board of Education 

Walsh responded to district officials and board members on September 18, letting them know that a meeting with a Reading Horizons team member is not what she is looking for. Here is her email, which I have edited for length:

Jesse, Superintendent Goar, and members of the Board, 

While I appreciate that Reading Horizons has made a commitment to improving their curriculum, my central issue is not with Reading Horizons and I have no interest in taking time from my family or my job to meet with them.

…my issue is not with Reading Horizons – my issue is with Minneapolis Public Schools and the Board.  Not only did MPS invest 1.2 million dollars without adequately vetting the material or company, but MPS spent tax payer dollars without a contract to protect those dollars.  MPS administration are the ones who did not stop or interrupt a training when offensive things were being implied about MPS students.  MPS administration did not disrupt when the books were initially passed out.  The Superintendent’s initial response was the books are only a small part of the whole.  A significant number of Board members expressed that either this was the right company to keep working with or that now MPS is in a position to help heal this company and improve resources for other districts.  MPS administration sent the email to teachers informing them that you will be moving forward with Reading Horizons.  And now, MPS is using more resources to have various staff meet with Reading Horizons.

…My issue is with MPS because you are ignoring community members, a portion of your board, your student representative to the Board, and I believe your own ethical compass….

As I said in my comment at the Board meeting–I am asking you to walk away from this contract. Not doing so is clearly telling the community that you will give our money to a company that produces racist materials. Now, you are wasting even more of our money by spending staff hours working with this company to improve their work. Like only having a purchase agreement, this is horrible business practice, they owe us money and should be paying us to consult with them.

I would like to close my long-winded email with two main points:

1) You put a student representative on the Board for a reason. You should be listening to him.

2) You should not be contacting us on behalf of Reading Horizons. You have missed the message. You should be contacting us because you, MPS, wants to meet with concerned citizens/educators/business owners/parents who are taking their time and energy and would like to help you do better. Please review the letter written by Shana Dickson, Chaun Webster, and David Boehnke and signed by many, many community members for the full message.

Shaun Walsh

Image result for noah branch

Noah Branch; photo from Kare 11

Parent, community member, youth worker

In her email, Walsh sings the praises of student board representative Noah Branch, who clearly asks why the district would even consider keeping Reading Horizons around. A video of the September 8 board meeting can be found here. 

A further, lingering issue here is that there is no publicly available copy of a current organizational chart for the Minneapolis Public Schools. For months, a notice on the district’s website has said the org chart is “currently being revised.” The problem? Who is responsible for what in the district? Who initially pushed the Reading Horizons contract through?

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Mary Turck on Reading Horizons: A self-proclaimed success?

The following post was written by blogger Mary Turck, former editor of the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Mary has delved into another key aspect of the spiraling Reading Horizons’ “issue” by tackling the claim that “research” proves the company’s products are superior.

Read her post here, and then go check out her blog:

Reading Horizons “proves” that Reading Horizons works (and I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you)

Page from one of the now-withdrawn Reading Horizons

 

(The following content was written by Mary Turck)

The million dollar boondoggle that is Minneapolis Public Schools contract with Utah-based Reading Horizons continues. Now MPS wants Reading Horizons to rewrite its offensive and racist “Little Books.” MPS insists that “research shows this program has been successful in improving student outcomes around the country, including outcomes in diverse districts like ours.” Where is the research that MPS relied on? Does it exist? And if it doesn’t, what is explanation for a $1.2 million contract?

Sarah Lahm started telling the Reading Horizons story in August: A corporate contractor got more than a million dollars from Minneapolis Public Schools and delivered offensive teacher training and racist books. Her exposé on Bright Lights, Small City has been picked up nationwide, including a September 11 article in the Washington Post.

Sarah Lahm quotes MPS Communications Director Gale Piewacki as explaining that a team including dozens of teachers chose Reading Horizons because they are “known for their accomplishments in literacy.” Reading Horizons itself claims:

All MPS studenst will demonstrate higher levels of reading skill in grades K-3. Achievement gaps between white students and students of color will narrow across all grades. MCA reading scores in grades 3-10 will increase over time, presuming implementation of the Reading Horizons program with fidelity.

Following Sarah Lahm’s excellent coverage of the Reading Horizons scandal, I kept coming up with a question she also raised: Where is the research to back up the claim that Reading Horizons can raise all student achievement and drastically reduce the achievement gaps?

Using both academic databases and Google’s search engine, I came up with two academic papers that considered Reading Horizons in Missouri and a bunch of “research” that came from Reading Horizons. The Reading Horizons page does not identify independent, outside research. If such research exists, why isn’t it identified?

One of the two academic papers considers the achievement of ten students, three of whom used Reading Horizons — and concludes that Reading Horizons “could in fact help,” but recommends further study. The other, a doctoral dissertation that has a more credible design, focuses on eighth graders and finds “mixed” results.

The “research” showing success for Reading Horizons came from Reading Horizons itself — which collected and reported the data on its own performance in seven schools, using different measures for each school. Most of the seven schools were in small towns, with only one in a large city. The number of students and the length of time they used the program varied from five students using the program for five years to 1,748 students using the program for four months. Only one school was specifically identified as “ethnically diverse,” which probably means that the others were not.

The “research report” on elementary schools using Reading Horizons did not identify actual locations or dates of use. Here’s a summary of the elementary schools and students featured in the Reading Horizons “research:”

Iron Springs – school in a city of 27,500 people
Using Reading Horizons: 365 students
39.2 percent free or reduced lunch

Seattle Hill – school in a city of 72,307 people
Using Reading Horizons: “unknown” number of K-2 students
12 percent free or reduced lunch

Hale Elementary School in a city of 2.78 million people
“ethnically diverse”
Using Reading Horizons: “unknown” number of first grade students in two classrooms for one year
66 percent free or reduced lunch

Case Avenue Elementary School in a city of 13,909 people
“linguistically diverse”
Using Reading Horizons: 5 students for five years
46 percent free or reduced lunch

Princeton School District in a city of 1,202 people
Using Reading Horizons: 5 special education students for one year
49 percent free or reduced lunch

Huntington Elementary School in a city of 2,150 people
Using Reading Horizons: 21 students for three months and 42 students for two years
51 percent free or reduced lunch

Webster Schools in a city of 13,523 people
Using Reading Horizons: 10 or 12 schools with 1,748 students for four months
50 percent free or reduced lunch

By way of comparison, here are some numbers describing Minneapolis Public Schools, from the district website:

  • Minneapolis Public School District has 35,356 students
  • 65 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch
  • 37 percent are African-American, 33 percent White American, 19 percent Hispanic American, 7 percent Asian American, 4 percent American Indian, 0.1 percent Pacific Islander
  • 24 or 33 percent of students are English Language Learners (both numbers appear on the page)

MPS has stumbled from program to program, changing rules and curriculum and tests repeatedly. The Reading Horizons fiasco, with the racist, sexist, historically inaccurate books provided by the company, is the latest stumble, and it’s a giant one. Now the district insists that it must continue the $1.2 million contract because of Reading Horizons’ record of success. What is that record? Where is the research that they claim to rely on? And if that research doesn’t exist, what is the explanation for entering into that contract in the first place?

Reading Horizons story picked up by Utah newspaper: “Lazy Lucy” is not new to MPS

September 10, 2015

Background: If you are new to the Reading Horizons/Minneapolis Public Schools debacle, or would like a review, please start with my first post on this topic, Phonics or indoctrination?

In the wake of the September 8 Minneapolis school board meeting, a Salt Lake City newspaper has picked up the Reading Horizons story, bringing new heat–and new information–to this explosive topic. 

During the  school board meeting, board members grappled with whether or not to cut ties with Reading Horizons, now or in the near future, and risk losing the $1.2 million dollars already sent to the company. At the board meeting, interim superintendent Michael Goar admitted this contract with the Utah-based provider of reading curriculum and software had been “rushed”, and referred to it as “not a standard contract.”

Goar partially blamed the situation on staffing “shifts,” or the layoffs that have been a key tenet of his leadership thus far. He also said that some of the people responsible for bringing on Reading Horizons no longer work for MPS, meaning there are few who can further explain this decision.

Reading Horizons 9.8 Statement

Reading Horizons statement; click for a better view

The Reading Horizons contract (you can find it here), unfortunately, appears to be nothing more than a purchase agreement, with no protections built in for the Minneapolis Public Schools, should the goods and services they purchased be deemed–as they have been by many–unworthy of district use. 

In the middle of the board’s September 8 discussion, Reading Horizons suddenly issued a carefully worded, lawsuit-proof statement to the board, in which they take “full responsibility for our role in the issue.” Which issue? Whose issue? This is never made clear.

Instead, the statement says Reading Horizons only recently became aware of the “issue,” and since then has been working “around the clock” to rectify the unnamed problem, which centers around the “Little Books” they provide to school districts.

But the Salt Lake Tribune article makes it clear that Reading Horizons believes the “problem” resides with MPS, and not with their products. Reporter Rachel Piper got the low-down by interviewing Reading Horizons employee, Laura Axtell: Image result for reading horizons lazy lucy

Reading Horizons’ implementation coordinator Laura Axtell said the focus on these titles — there are 54 in the “Little Books” series — ignores the context of how they’re intended to be used. “Lazy Lucy,” for example, takes place in the safari unit, she said.

“But if people perceive that they’re culturally insensitive, then they’re a distraction to reading success.”

Axtell said the company, based in North Salt Lake, has been working with the district “around the clock” to make things right in Minneapolis and everywhere the books are being used.

Though “Lazy Lucy” never made it into Minneapolis classrooms, the series has been available for three or four years, Axtell said. She said she couldn’t say whether the books are used in any Utah schools.

Here are two important takeaways from this article:

  • Reading Horizons prioritizes decoding words–or learning how the English language works–above what the language is saying. This is the “value neutral” stance that some within MPS have also adopted as they express support for sticking with Reading Horizons. (To which school board member Tracine Asberry declared at the September 8 board meeting: “Children decode pictures, too.”)
  • The “Little Books” series were not specifically created for MPS, as some within the district have said. Instead, they have been in use–and, presumably, available for review by any district employee–for years now. 

Then there is the matter of how to “fix” this situation, and who should be paying for the fix. In the article, Axtell has this to say:

“The thing that has become very apparent is that we need diversity,” Axtell added. Although the Little Books look like storybooks, she said, they were produced by a small team with a specific technical focus: making sure each word could be “decoded” for pronunciation and comprehension with the tools taught in the wider lesson.

More people will be reviewing material going forward, she said, both inside the company and outside it, including teachers and parents.

“Our goal is to affirm cultural competency and equity,” Axtell said.

So, it seems the Minneapolis Public Schools chose to give a significant contract to a company that is lacking in diversity.

And now, the district is, essentially, paying Reading Horizons to learn how to be more “culturally competent.” 

Chaun Webster and his wife, Verna Wong in a City Pages photo

At the board meeting, the 45 minute public comment period–which MPS has not videotaped since 2010–was partially shut down by board chair Jenny Arneson, who became flustered when northside resident and public personality Al Flowers insisted on being allowed to address the board. (Flowers challenged MPS’s apparent policy of requiring people to sign up to speak ahead of time, online. On Tuesday, Minneapolis resident Shaun Walsh spoke out strongly against Reading Horizons; then, a string of  three MPS reading specialists addressed the board in favor of Reading Horizons’ phonics curriculum.)

Arneson’s actions prompted Minneapolis parent and business owner Chaun Webster–who has been vocal about his opposition to Reading Horizons–to stand up and chastise the board, saying, “I did not come here, as a parent, to have you all walk out on me.”

The meeting resumed and lasted 5 more hours, finally ending at 11 p.m. It was not until the very end that the public could, again, weigh in on the Reading Horizons deal. By then, only a handful of MPS employees and a smattering of citizens were left in the board room.

Overall, the mood was that of frustration and exhaustion. Board members Don Samuels and Josh Reimnitz seemed most in favor of sticking by Reading Horizons and giving them a chance to mend their ways. Samuels said MPS has an opportunity to “create transformation around educational materials,” by requiring Reading Horizons to “change all the old white guys” on their board, among other things.

Reimnitz praised Reading Horizons for “removing offensive content” from their materials, saying he would be open to working with them again because they have a “great curriculum” and seem willing to change.

Board members Siad Ali, Rebecca Gagnon, Kim Ellison, and Nelson Inz seemed far less supportive of Reading Horizons, with Tracine Asberry most explicitly decrying not only the company’s performance, but also MPS’s decision to partner with them in the first place. Student board member Noah Branch also spoke out against Reading Horizons, saying he found it “breathtaking that we are not cutting the contract right away.”

Tracine Asberry

Asberry counteracted the positive reviews MPS employees, such as Amy Jones, director of elementary education, and some board members were giving to Reading Horizons, saying the literacy needs of MPS students are now being used as an excuse to keep doing business with the company. 

“There is no silver bullet,” Asberry reminded the board. We are being told, she said, that “Reading Horizons will, all of a sudden, help our kids with literacy.” But, she emphasized, “I believe kids can learn to read and decode, and have a sense of their beauty.”

At last, Chaun Webster got the chance to address the board, expressing disgust and dismay with MPS and their treatment of those who are unwilling to overlook Reading Horizons’ deficits. 

We are not going away,” he told the board and interim superintendent Goar. “Our kids and students are still impacted by this.”

Piper’s Salt Lake Tribune article includes a full reprint of a September 9 resolution regarding Reading Horizons, which she attributes to the Minneapolis Public Schools. I can’t find this document on the district’s website, however, so I am not certain that it is a finalized statement. However, it appears that MPS is calling on Reading Horizons to “apologize” at the next school board meeting.

MPS also wants some money back, which may be tough to procure, given the non-standard purchase agreement/contract the district signed, as well as the fact that these Reading Horizons products have apparently been available and in use for years, implying that a diligent employee or two could have viewed the materials before signing on the dotted line. 

Board member Carla Bates even wondered aloud whether or not MPS had been the victim of a bait and switch move by Reading Horizons, as teachers and MPS administrators are saying that no one saw the offending Little Books until after the contract was signed. 

Perhaps no one will ever know exactly how MPS agreed to part with such a large sum of a money, in exchange for a phonics curriculum and a public relations disaster.

As for Reading Horizons, this whole episode, or “issue,” has prompted at least one immediate change for them: their website no longer prominently displays “Faith” as the company’s number one “Core Value.” 

A screenshot taken on September 9, 2015 provides a pre-edited look at the page:

RH Faith Cache

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Doctor to Minneapolis Public Schools: Divest from Reading Horizons

September 8, 2015

Background: In early August, several Minneapolis teachers contacted me about an early literacy training session they had been to. What happened there shocked and offended many of them. I am happy to help tell their stories, which I decided to do in a series of blog posts. The stories initially centered on two teachers–one white (Mandy Perna), one a teacher of color (Shana Dickson)–and their reactions to the religiously tinged, “Common Core” ready, and all-around offensive training they attended, put on by the Utah-based company, Reading Horizons. Now, the posts have expanded to include the community’s response to Reading Horizons, and especially to the racist, sexist emerging reader books the company created for the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Please refer to previous posts for further details and pictures.

To date, around 700 concerned parents, staff, students, education professionals, and citizens have signed a letter, crafted by Minneapolis teachers Shana Dickson and David Boehnke, along with artist Chaun Webster, demanding that the Minneapolis school district cancel its $1.2 million contract with Reading Horizons and focus instead on strengthening connections with local communities and sources of knowledge.

On September 8, supporters of this letter are being asked to rally at the first school board meeting of the new school year, starting at 5:30 at the district’s Davis Center headquarters.

Here is the story of one parent volunteer who is asking MPS to use this moment of unrest as an opportunity to “work collectively” with the people it serves. 

Happy Reynolds is a Minneapolis primary care doctor with two young kids in the Minneapolis Public Schools. Reynolds is white; her kids are not.

Happy Reynolds

As a parent, Reynolds has spent hours volunteering in her daughters’ classrooms; last year, she taught a class of 3rd graders the anatomical structure of the eye, because a Somali student expressed interest in becoming a doctor someday.

Now, Reynolds has been tracking the school district’s contract with Reading Horizons, and she has a direct message for MPS:

Divest now, and cancel the Reading Horizons contract.

Although Reynolds has sympathy for the MPS employees who brought Reading Horizons into the district, saying she doesn’t think they are “bad people,” she is also not content to accept MPS’s move to return the offending “Little Books” to Reading Horizons for redesign.

Reynolds says she spoke with Amy Jones, MPS’s director of elementary education, last week, and was told that the offending books are but a “small part” of Reading Horizons’ otherwise strong phonics program.

Kenyans can run

Sample Reading Horizons Little Book

But Reynolds is not satisfied with this. “They sent us crazy, racist materials,” she says definitively, calling the whole deal “poisoned fruit.” 

“If the KKK had a great literature program, would we buy it?” Reynolds wondered, calling the whole episode part of a bigger issue: “If we continue to pay a company with these skills, we are condoning this.”

Reynolds guesses that those responsible for the Reading Horizons contract “probably fell for a big sales pitch, and got sold a bill of goods.” And she knows that cancelling a big contract like this will not happen easily:  “Sometimes, an attachment to a decision or the work and planning put into it makes it hard to turn back.”

Beyond the overt racism, Reynolds also points out–as others have–that Reading Horizons seems to have clear connections to the Mormon church. “I read through their whole website, and faith is their number one tenet.” Sensing a “proselytizing” vibe, Reynolds insists that, as a public school district, MPS must be “secular.”

Reynolds lives in Phillips, one of the Minneapolis’s most underserved neighborhoods. So, when she contemplates a main justification–low reading scores– for overlooking Reading Horizon’s trouble spots, she is not satisfied.

“What I see in my neighborhood is parents working all night, cleaning offices, etc. Their kids want to read and be read to, but the families need more support. What they have is unmet needs.”

Focusing only on low test scores is akin to the pressures Reynolds sees doctors facing: “Primary care is dying because, like the public school system, the metrics we are being judged by don’t reflect the reality people are living under.”

As an example, Reynolds says doctors can be “paid by how well someone controls their diabetes,” which does not address the fact that some patients have zero access to a refrigerator or a place to safely get out and walk.

Therefore, Reynolds wants solutions to the Reading Horizons debacle, and does not want to simply heap more blame on administrators.

“What most patients want is a physician who listens to them, and knows their hopes and fears. And 90 percent of diagnoses are made by patients telling their stories. We could do this in public schools. We could say to parents, ‘Your child is not performing well. What do you see is the problem?'”

Reynolds would love to see this issue become a “transformative moment” for MPS, where the district reaches out to staff, parents, and the community and says:

“We are in this fight together, and we are going to come together as a community.”

Among Reynolds’ suggestions for how to move forward:Image result for housing code violations

  • Use money–like the $1.2 million promised to Reading Horizons–to lower class sizes, provide extra support, and tailor interventions to individual student needs
  • Coordinate better to support our most struggling neighborhoods; ask them what they need
  • Example: partner with Children’s Hospitals for training MPS staff about how to handle kids and families facing post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Give down payments on houses to teachers who live and work in high poverty areas. If they stay 10-15 years, then forgive their mortgages
  • Tackle housing code violations; help parents who must work 2 or 3 jobs just to survive
  • Tap in to the incredible wealth of native educators and scholars in our community, and the huge amount of intelligentsia among the African-American community
  • Explore using a literacy program that collects cultural folktales, as from Somali and Hmong cultures, and uses them in the classroom. Everybody could learn together.
  • Partner with the public library system. Get every kid a library card.
  • Do not spend a whole year on test prep; test-taking skills can be taught in one week, if necessary. Understand that focusing on boosting test scores is the same as treating symptoms, and not the disease.

While Reynolds wants MPS to cancel this contract and move forward, positively, she is also ultimately supportive of the district, saying, “We have some pretty damn amazing teachers.”

The question, now, according to Reynolds, is this:

“Do we have the strength of character, as a city, as a school district, to stand up, ask for forgiveness, say ‘we heard you,’ and cancel the contract?”

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Minneapolis teacher: It is “misinformation” that Reading Horizons was recommended by all

September 3, 2015

Reading Horizons story, continued. 

On Tuesday, September 1, I published part five of my series on the Minneapolis Public Schools’ controversial contract with Utah reading curriculum and software company, Reading Horizons. Part five highlighted a recent letter sent to MPS by teachers Shana Dickson and David Boehnke, and artist Chaun Webster.

The letter–which is available here, as a live document that supporters can sign on to–demands that MPS cancel its $1.2 million contract with Reading Horizons and establish stronger connections between the district and the communities it serves: 

Teaching phonics can be integrated into the teaching of compelling and empowering literature that reflects the diversity of our scholars, and the world. Training and investment in such literature is what an equity-centered district should do. Minneapolis Public Schools should be making financial decisions that nourish connections between the district and local communities.

The letter currently has close to 400 signatures.

For background information and further details, please start with my first post in this series: Phonics or indoctrination? Minneapolis teacher training takes a step backwards.

Columbus discovers America

One of the original Reading Horizons “Little Books”

New information from a Minneapolis Public Schools teacher provides greater insight into how the district ended up with Utah-based Reading Horizons as their phonics curriculum provider. 

In continued efforts to defend its big dollar contract with Reading Horizons, which produced classroom books that many found deeply offensive, MPS has made this point: “A team of folks, including 60 teachers, selected Reading Horizons based on many factors, including its track record of success.”

(Note: sources say many of the teachers involved were not current classroom teachers, but rather “Teachers on Special Assignment,” who instead work out of district headquarters. Second note: to date, I have yet to find any independent source of research that supports Reading Horizons’ claims of success.)

The teacher, who asked not to be named, has over 20 years of experience within MPS as a kindergarten teacher, and was one of the 60 teachers included in the decision-making process. In a note sent to this blog, the teacher details the selection process from her point of view, and mentions a lingering problem: “…the many and frequent changes in those who lead us at the district level, and the need to make changes FAST, have left us with a hodge-podge of programs that don’t fit together.”

MPS has referred to the turnover and layoffs within MPS’s top admin layers as “staffing shifts,” and blames these “shifts” for the lack of oversight regarding Reading Horizons’ “Little Books”: “Due to staffing shifts…the books–a small, optional part of the program–were not comprehensively vetted.” 

Here is the teacher’s note:

Hi Sarah,

I am one of the 60 or so teachers that were on the review committee. It is misinformation that all 60 or so of us recommended Reading Horizons as our pick for foundations/phonics program. Here’s the reality: We were able to pick from a total of 5 programs, 3 of which were “online only” programs that would require our K, 1st, and 2nd graders to sit in front of a computer or use an Ipad daily. Those three did not seem to be best practice for our youngest students.

The remaining two programs (Mondo Bookshop and Reading Horizons) were the only ones that could be taught without daily computer or tablet use. At the table I was at ( with 8-10 K and 1st grade teachers) we overwhelmingly preferred Mondo Bookshop (currently in use in St. Paul Public Schools).

I think that if some preferred Reading Horizons, it was because we were all looking for a program that would allow us to have more emergent level reading books available to our students. It should be noted that we were told there were books, but I don’t remember having the chance to look them over.

I was disappointed that there were no more curriculum programs for us to evaluate. I have been teaching kindergarten in MPS for 26 years, and know there are some good programs out there. Unfortunately, MPS is not in an “adoption year” for a new balanced literacy program, and the current Good Habits, Great Readers reading curriculum lacks the foundation/ phonemic awareness component that a strong early literacy curriculum program provides. Those of us with experience know how to support our youngest learners with the skill needed to learn to begin to decode words and read. That said, with the many and frequent changes in those who lead us at the district level, and the need to make changes FAST, have left us with a hodge-podge of programs that don’t fit together.

This teacher’s experience and insights raises a key question: does MPS need a new, mandated, K-2 phonics curriculum, asap?

An attempt to get more answers by reviewing MPS’s contract with Reading Horizons fell short, as the actual contract appears to be little more than a purchase agreement, signed by Minneapolis school board chair Jenny Arneson and Reading Horizons Sales Director Robert Openshaw on June 23 and 24, 2015.

[embeddoc url=”http://www.brightlightsmallcity.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Reading-Horizons-Signed-contract-1-11.pdf”]

A request for a more detailed contract garnered this response from MPS’s data request division:

“What I sent to you is the complete document in our computerized contract management system.”

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Community members demand the Minneapolis Public Schools cancel Reading Horizons contract

Sarah Lahm

September 1, 2015

Background: In early August, several Minneapolis teachers contacted me about an early literacy training session they had been to. What happened there shocked and offended many of them. I am happy to help tell their stories, which I decided to do in a series of blog posts. The stories initially centered on two teachers–one white (Mandy Perna), one a teacher of color (Shana Dickson)–and their reactions to the religiously tinged, “Common Core” ready, and all-around offensive training they attended, put on by the Utah-based company, Reading Horizons. Now, the posts have expanded to include the community’s response.

The teachers’ decision to share their experiences has led to an outpouring of support for them, and against the Minneapolis Public Schools’s (MPS) decision to do business with Reading Horizons (via a $1.2 million contract). This is largely due to the  “Little Books”–deemed extremely offensive by many–that Reading Horizons produced for MPS’s K-2 classroom teachers. Please refer to previous posts for further details and pictures.

Since the blog posts hit on August 25, MPS has apologized for the books and said the offending ones have been sent back to Reading Horizons for redesign. 

This response has not been good enough for Shana Dickson, fellow Minneapolis teacher David Boehnke, and Minneapolis artist and business owner Chaun Webster. These three have a clear message for MPS:

Cancel the district’s $1.2 million contract with Reading Horizons, and implement a community-led curriculum selection process, effective immediately. 

Chaun Webster (St Paul Foundation photo)

In a solutions-oriented letter sent to district officials on Monday, August 31, Dickson, Boehnke, and Webster outline the above demand, and take the district to task for violating its own mission, vision, and “promise:”

Our Promise
Minneapolis Public Schools promises an inspirational education experience in a safe, welcoming environment for all diverse learners to acquire the tools and skills necessary to confidently engage in the global community.

Webster is also the co-owner of north Minneapolis’s Ancestry Books, which has focused on providing books written by people from underrepresented communities. (Ancestry Books, which Webster co-owns with his wife, Verna Wong, will be closing its physical location in late September but maintaining an online presence.)

Dickson, Boehnke, and Webster wrote the letter to MPS, and twenty other people–including Macalester associate professor Brian Lozenski–have signed on to it, adding their support. The letter is available here, as a live document, and the authors are encouraging people who support it to add their names as well.

Here is a recap of their demands (explained in detail in the letter):

  1. End MPS’s contract with Reading Horizons
  2. Form a diverse, community based assessment entity to review current and future curriculum and partners
  3. End scripted curriculum and expensive, short term, test-score centered purchasing
  4. Provide funds for teachers, schools, and communities to review and replace marginalizing curriculum and texts in their current libraries with richly diverse and culturally relevant curriculum and literature

Here is an excerpt from the letter:

The pressure to choose from curriculums with “researched” connections to “improving test scores” limits districts to corporate education campaigns. This seems to be why the District, including various multicultural departments, chose a racist, patriarchal curriculum. Such an approach also eliminates the idea of developing skilled reading teachers and learning conditions where students and staff can flourish. A curriculum that “anyone can teach” by reading the script is unlikely to be successful, nor do we want to create a situation where we see teachers and students as nothing but talking and listening empty vessels* (* http://www.brightlightsmallcity.com/reading-horizons-a-curriculum-even-a-janitor-could-teach/).

Instead of purchasing million-plus-dollar outside curriculum that deeply compromises any commitment to equity we should collaborate with our local and school communities’ rich knowledge to create powerful, local, and culturally relevant curriculum. Consider the Network for the Development of Children of African Descent (an archive of culturally appropriate books for children of African descent), Birchbark Books (an extensive collection of indigenous children’s literature), Ancestry Books (a collection of literature written by authors of color and Indigenous authors to reflect their communities and children with respect), and many more.

For the sake of our students, community, and future we must refuse a Reading Horizons “redesign” altogether. Furthermore we find it to be poor logic that investment in short-term out-of-state corporate solutions is better than continual investments in our staff, and the collective empowerment of students, families, educators, and communities. Teaching phonics can be integrated into the teaching of compelling and empowering literature that reflects the diversity of our scholars, and the world. Training and investment in such literature is what an equity-centered district should do. Minneapolis Public Schools should be making financial decisions that nourish connections between the district and local communities. Developing critical consciousness and responding to oppression and injustice should be at the center rather than perpetuating the messages seen in Reading Horizon’s curriculum.

The Minneapolis Public Schools have, thus far, remained committed to Reading Horizons. On Monday, August 31, teachers report being given the following info sheet, with a list of counterpoints to the criticism being leveled at MPS and Reading Horizons:

RH Defense

Click for a better view

Activists are also planning to attend the next Minneapolis school board meeting on Tuesday, September 8 at MPS’s Davis Center headquarters. They are encouraging others to come and show support for this issue.

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