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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4 thoughts on “Doctor to Minneapolis Public Schools: Divest from Reading Horizons

  1. :)

    From the Inside
    *Cancel the contract with Reading Horizons! No if ands or buts! Adopt a literacy program that is non-discriminatory regardless of color, economic or orientation.
    *Hold the District accountable to the tax payer class size referendum. Insist on classroom numbers; not grade. Insist on accurate/current site count and classroom numbers.
    *Continue the collaboration with agencies around working with students and families who have suffered trauma.
    *Reward public servants for living in the communities they serve.
    *Provide livable housing for middle and low income families.
    *Honestly, send every kid a library card.
    *Advocate and inform parents they can opt-out of testing.

  2. Jeff

    I have been reading the blog posts with interest but also some concern as they lack many facts. In short, people are off track and fail to understand the difference between a great curriculum (which has no problems) and optional material (which had obvious problems). Here are the facts for those who still care about them:

    1) Reading proficiency in Minneapolis for students of color based on the MCA grade 3 testing was 24% in the 2013-2014 school year

    2) A group of 55 teachers and literacy specialists from Minneapolis Public Schools reviewed 13 new foundational skills curricula (an integral part of learning to read) to find a way to improve reading scores

    3) Reading Horizons was the clear favorite after these 13 programs were reviewed

    4) After being chosen, the Reading Horizons curriculum was fully vetted and no culturally insensitive material or religious overtones were found (this is the actual instructional material passed on to students)

    5) The actual Reading Horizons curriculum does NOT include the controversial little books

    6) The Reading Horizons curriculum (the way that students are taught foundational skills for reading) has NOTHING to do with the little books, which were supplemental and optional material only

    7) True, the little books were not vetted

    8) Also true, no student and most teachers did not see these offensive books as they were immediately pulled once the problems were identified

    9) When Minneapolis complained to Reading Horizons, they flew out representatives to apologize in person

    10) Reading Horizons has agreed to rewrite the books at their expense

    Perhaps most important, Reading Horizons was tested in several Minneapolis schools last year and had great success in that short time. Mistakes were made with the optional material but those mistakes were immediately corrected. It is time to get behind the actual curriculum so that Minneapolis students can focus on what kids are supposed to do, learn to read.


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