Protesters disrupt school board meeting

Group calling for an immediate end to the Reading Horizons contract forces an early end to the meeting

Protesters stood behind school board members as they attempted to vote on the district's proposed 2016 property tax levy. Credit: Dylan Thomas

A group protesting Minneapolis Public Schools’ contract with Reading Horizons, the Utah company behind a controversial literacy curriculum, forced an early end to the Sept. 29 Board of Education meeting.

School Board Chair Jenny Arneson twice halted the meeting, and every attempt to restart the proceedings was met by loud chanting. During one long break, the protesters circled their chairs and calmly discussed their demands: an end to the district’s $1.2-million contract with Reading Horizons, a public apology from Interim Superintendent Michael Goar and the termination of the district employees responsible for the contract.

The board, in turn, is seeking an apology from Reading Horizons and a recall of books many teachers and community members found racially insensitive or outright offensive. Many saw both racial and gender stereotypes in books meant to supplement the curriculum.

District officials said Reading Horizons CEO Tyson Smith is expected to attend the board’s Oct. 13 meeting. The company issued an apology earlier in September and pledged to diversify the team that designs the curriculum.

There are plans to disrupt that meeting, as well, according to a post on the Facebook page of Social Justice Education Movement, a group involved in organizing the protest against Reading Horizons.

Most of the board members left the room behind Arneson when she gaveled-out the meeting, although Board Member Tracine Asberry remained seated. Several others returned to listen to protesters describe their frustration and disappointment over the district’s ongoing relationship with Reading Horizons. Goar, too, briefly returned to the room and sat near the area where protesters had circled their chairs.

Teferi Fufa, a former Minneapolis teacher with three grandchildren enrolled in the district, said the imagery in the books reflected long-outdated stereotypes.

“I thought this kind of curriculum 100, 150 years ago would have been expected,” Fufa said. “Now, it’s not acceptable.”

The books were collected by district officials before they were used with students.

The group of protesters included several who identified themselves as current or former district teachers, as well as students, alumni, parents and concerned community members.

Michelle Deziel, who lives in Lake Elmo, said she joined the protest after reading about it on Facebook. Deziel repeated a question several others in the group asked: Why outsource the job of providing racially inclusive curriculum materials to a company in Utah?

“We just have a lot of culturally relevant resources here in the Twin Cities,” she said.

The board eventually voted to approve a proposed 4-percent increase to its property tax levy only by shouting into their microphones and then quickly adjourned. At that point, protesters were standing on the dais behind board members shouting a call-and-response of “Whose meeting? Our meeting!” and “Whose children? Our children!”

Several in the audience stuck fingers in their ears as the meeting room’s overloaded sound system crackled and squawked. The outcome of the board’s vote was unintelligible to those in the room, but was confirmed later by Arneson.

A Committee of the Whole meeting set to start after the business meeting was cancelled.

School Board Member Nelson Inz, a high school social studies teacher, said he was “sympathetic” to the protester’s cause. Inz said his classes discuss the legacy of colonialism and the history of racism in the U.S.

He said he tried to explain to the protesters that he had a duty to his constituents to act on the levy proposal that night.

“I guess this is part of what can happen when you have an open meeting law,” he said.

Two weeks earlier, the school board heard from three district reading specialists who, while denouncing the content of the supplemental books, testified that the approach underlying the Reading Horizons curriculum was effective with young learners struggling to read. At that same meeting, Director of Elementary Education Amy Jones described Reading Horizons as “by far” the most comprehensive early literacy curriculum of more than one dozen reviewed by her department.

Goar acknowledged during that earlier meeting that staff had not “comprehensively vetted” the supplemental materials, calling it a mistake. The district is unlikely to recover the $1.2 million if it cancels the contract, he added.

Widely accepted research indicates students who don’t read proficiently by third grade are much more likely than their peers to drop out before graduating. The district’s strategic plan calls for a 5-percent annual increase in the number of students meeting or exceeding state standards in reading, and sets an even higher target for students of color, expecting an 8-percent annual increase in reading proficiency.

Just 42 percent of all district students were at or above that state standard in 2014. Black and Hispanic students were reading proficiently at half that rate, according to the MPS Online Scorecard.