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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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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