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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8 thoughts on “Community members demand the Minneapolis Public Schools cancel Reading Horizons contract

  1. Margo Pedersen

    Mpls schools needs to looks at all racial tensions among the staff. Stop putting it in the air that white adults don’t and can’t teach students of color the same. So many bias’s in this district it’s embarrassing .

    Reply
    1. Sonya Lewis

      As a black parent with two black males in MPS, what infuriates me the most about this is the Office of Black Male Student Achievement exists with a $2 million budget to positively impact and engage approximately 5,000 students and families (with no increase) but Reading Horizons who manufactures this racist insensitive b.s. curriculum is awarded a $1.2 million contract to negatively impact thousands of children between grades K-3 (including my youngest son, who is in Kindergarten.) It seems abundantly clear to me that indoctrination is placed higher on the priority list (therefore supported more) than education.
      MPS, you should be ashamed of yourself.

      Reply
      1. Sonya Lewis

        The initial budget number is way off in my initial comment- the Office of Black Male Student Achievement was initially provided a $200,000 budget in 2014-15.
        My apologies.

        Reply
  2. Effectively Silenced

    I had the same problem with a racist/elitist/Christian-values /hetero-patriarchal curriculum being used at my special education site in Minneapolis. Rather than investing in something current, they gave the kids a 12 year old series they found in the archives. Since voicing my concerns to the administration, my job has been threatened. I tried to get the Office of Equity and Diversity, the Curriculum Department, the Office of Special Education, the Superintendent’s Office and the Union to do SOMETHING… all to no avail. Although the union gestured a willing to go to arbitration over my letter of deficiency, they have refused to move forward more than three years later. Instead, they are waiting for the district to rewrite my letter. After a year of using the biased curriculum (I had to use it or face insubordination) I had collected a some convincing data on its bias. I called the publisher to complain. It was a copyright violation that reportedly forced the program to buy an updated version. It has never been used, so I have never seen it. My “punishment” has escalated to a day off without pay (progressive discipline). Go figure. No worries, I have been told “there is no racial problem here.” That kind of ignorance is just what institutional racism needs to stay deeply embedded.

    Reply
  3. concerned parent

    I love how the district’s response is “no children were exposed…and only a few teachers were.” Like it’s asbetos. If you have to issue a statement such as this, it was probably not a good decision to purchase this crap in the first place. Terminate the contract. Period.

    Reply

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