District seeks apology, compensation for offensive books

School Board approves a list of demands for Utah publisher Reading Horizons

The Minneapolis Board of Education is seeking a public apology and compensation from Reading Horizons, the company whose phonics curriculum contained materials many teachers and parents have described as offensive.

Reading Horizons won a $1.2-million contract with the district, and about 460 teachers trained this summer to use its early literacy curriculum. Another 450 are scheduled to train this month. But controversy erupted just before the start of the school year when it was found books used to teach the curriculum to students were riddled with racial stereotypes.

The School Board’s demands include a recall of books with titles like “Lazy Lucy,” whose title character is a black girl, and “Nieko the Hunting Girl,” about a young American Indian. It has also asked for their removal from all schools in the U.S. In a resolution passed by the board late Tuesday, members also called for new books “that reflect racial proportion and best interest of the urban school community.”

Company representatives, who apparently were monitoring the meeting online, issued a statement Tuesday evening taking “full responsibility” for the offensive materials. Read aloud by Interim Superintendent Michael Goar, the statement included a pledge to diversify the team that develops their reading lessons.

The meeting began with a heated public comment period where one of the main topics was the Reading Horizons contract.

Three district reading specialists testified in support of maintaining the Reading Horizons contract. All three denounced the content of the supplemental materials, but said the district shouldn’t abandon a curriculum they described as a very effective tool for working with struggling early readers.

School Board Chair Jenny Arneson briefly suspended the meeting when community activist Al Flowers went to the podium out of turn and spoke against keeping the Reading Horizons contract. Flowers said more community members had planned to speak out against the company and the books but were too far down in the queue to be heard during a public comment period limited to 45 minutes.

But shortly after the meeting resumed, the School Board heard from Chaun Webster, co-owner of Ancestry Books in North Minneapolis. Webster described the awarding of the contract to Reading Horizons as irresponsible and urged the School Board to “hold the superintendent accountable.”

Goar acknowledged later that the “books were simply not comprehensively vetted.”

“That was our mistake,” he said.

Goar, who has overseen a significant downsizing of district headquarters, said the contract was finalized during a period of personnel transition. He said staff “took shortcuts” and pledged to “hold people accountable.”

“The reality is we are wondering: Why did we do this to ourselves?” Goar said.

He said the district had limited options for backing out of a legally binding contract and stood to lose the money paid to Reading Horizons. On the other hand, working with the company meant the district could influence the content of a curriculum used in school districts across the country while also providing struggling readers at home crucial support, he added.

A discussion among School Board members showed they were torn between those options.

“If we keep this contract, are we really practicing what we’re preaching?” asked student representative Noah Branch. A non-voting member of the board, Branch spoke in favor of ending the contract immediately.

Board Member Carla Bates said the literacy teaching method underlying Reading Horizon’s curriculum — known as the Orton-Gillingham approach — had been effective for one of her children. Bates said Reading Horizons “should at least split the cost of the curriculum” with Minneapolis, especially since it stood to gain from the changes demanded by the district.

“The company is going to benefit from the tension and strife in our community,” she said. “They need to pay some of that back.”

It wasn’t just the Reading Horizon’s apparent racial insensitivity that alarmed board members; Rebecca Gagnon noted it prominently lists Christian faith as a core value on its website.

“I just don’t feel right working with this company,” Gagnon said, adding that there are many other curricula available that use the same Orton-Gillingham approach.

Amy Jones, the district’s director of elementary education, said more than a dozen curricula were reviewed before the district settled on Reading Horizons. Reading Horizons’ was “by far” the most comprehensive and the best at scaling-up the Orton-Gillingham approach from one-on-one instruction to working with a whole classroom, Jones said.

Jones said she “100-percent” stands behind the Reading Horizons instructional materials used with teachers. But her team never looked at the supplemental materials meant for young readers before approving the contract.

“We absolutely take responsibility for that,” Jones said. “… We should have had them here and we did not.”