Yet again the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) is embroiled in controversy as to the education of students of color.
This time around the controversy has to deal with books that were found to be highly offensive yet were designed to stem the reading gap among early learners of color. Also at the center of the controversy is a $1.25 million contract awarded to the company that provided the books. While students never saw the books (as they were pulled before distribution) the district still paid for the materials and now questions are being raised as to how was the company vetted and how could such materials ever be considered acceptable in an education arena.
Reading Horizons, a Utah based company, was given a hefty $1.25 million contract to provide learning materials specifically designed to educate young students of color, addressing a problem that has embarrassingly plagued the district. Problems with Reading Horizons arose when a second purchase – beyond what initially was a $1.2 million contract – was authorized for a series of “Discovery Little Books.” That purchase of $236,700, included such titles as “Lazy Lucy,” which depicts Lucy as a lazy African girl who does not want to clean her hut, and “Nieko the Hunting Girl” that depicts a primitive view of Indigenous-Americans and yet even another book that focuses on Kenyans and how “Kenyans are able to run very fast” and “some Kenyans run with bare feet.”
The books first came to light during an August teacher training session conducted by Reading Horizons at a cost of $104,000. Several concerned teachers voiced their objections to the materials they said were racist and also sexist.
While the purchase of such materials by MPS is disturbing, it is not shocking according to Minneapolis’ NAACP president.
“The sad part is I was not surprised,” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP.
Levy-Pounds said just this past February the district introduced a computer software game that simulated the life of a slave. Levy-Pounds said the game was in use by students of the district until objection was raised by the group, Black Advocates for Education Minnesota. In that game, users were given badges – rewards – for successfully navigating life as a slave girl, such as not answering a white man because “he liked his slaves silent.”
“This (the purchase of the offensive books) is a part of a pattern here with Minneapolis Public Schools,” said Levy-Pounds. “These things happen because of an unwillingness to engage parents, students and the community and what’s happening is our children are continually suffering because of it. This type of material gravely impacts the psyche of our kids. This is just another example of what happens to kids of color in the district.”
The NAACP president said with such a large contract being awarded, it is appalling that these materials were ordered – and a company such as Reading Horizons was chosen – without being properly vetted. Levy-Pounds also said this issue could have been avoided if the now defunct Office of Equity and Diversity was intact and given the teeth it was supposed to have had when it was created.
“The district needs to bring back the Office of Equity and Diversity and equip it with the authority to truly affect change. We don’t want an office in name only,” said Levy-Pounds.
The Office of Equity and Diversity was dismantled by the district’s interim superintendent, Michael Goar.
During a Sept. 8 MPS board meeting, several board members expressed outrage at the inclusion of the books in the Reading Horizons curriculum. But according to Levy-Pounds, simple outrage is not enough.
“They need to void the contract with Reading Horizons, period,” said an exacerbated Levy-Pounds. “I don’t see any reason why they should remain in a contract with a company that demonstrated a lack of cultural competence and racial sensitivity. This is unacceptable.”
Although the board did draft a resolution calling for an apology and reimbursement for the books, it did not seek to void the contract with Reading Horizons. In a letter penned by Goar, he defended Reading Horizons.
“Reading Horizons works,” said Goar in a letter provided by the district to Insight News. “Research shows this program has been successful in improving student outcomes across the country, including outcomes in diverse districts like ours.”
Goar blamed the lack of vetting on “staffing shifts” within the district. Within the past few months several key administrators – many, African-American – have resigned from the district.
“Due to staffing shifts and the desire to get a program in place for the new school year, the books were not comprehensively vetted,” said Goar. “We now know this was a mistake.”