Minneapolis school board cancels contract with Reading Horizons

Parents protest Reading Horizons
Parents, students and Minneapolis residents registered their unhappiness with the school board's Reading Horizons program Tuesday night.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

The Minneapolis school board voted Tuesday night to ditch a controversial literacy curriculum aimed at the district's youngest readers, after critics called some of its materials racist.

The phonics-oriented effort, being rolled out in schools this fall, was intended to promote literacy to about 8,000 kindergartners, first- and second-graders.

But some books included illustrations and content that many parents, teachers and even administrators found racist and otherwise inappropriate. One primer titled "Lazy Lucy" featured a girl from Africa. Students did not see the book.

The board's vote came after angry and frustrated parents, many waving signs, filled the boardroom and lined up to speak.

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Chairperson Jenny Arenson expressed the school board's regret from the outset.

"I know that many of you are frustrated and rightfully distrust us," she said. "Tonight, we're going to repair those errors and we're going to create a plan to prevent future harm."

The board voted to immediately terminate its contract with Reading Horizons, the Utah company that provided the curriculum, even as it debated whether that would hurt an effort to get a refund of the $1.2 million the district has spent so far.

Michael Goar, interim superintendent of Minneapolis schools, owned up to his own role in the scandal.  

"I'm the first one to recognize that our team failed to do a number of different things ... in terms of purchasing protocol, inability for us to recognized derogatory materials and take appropriate steps and so forth," he said. "If we had done our job, clearly, the board would not be in this predicament."

Even Tyson Smith, the president of the company that sold the curriculum to Minneapolis, was contrite.

"We recognize the anger and frustration," he said. "It's real and we are sorry."

Smith said he still believes Reading Horizons can help Minneapolis kids and regrets that the company won't get a chance to fulfill the promises it made to improve reading skills. Smith said his company is also trying to fix the materials.

But the school board and parents were having none of it Tuesday night, even without a viable alternative or a clear path forward.

The incident left James Towns, father of a second-grader at Marcy Open School, with shaken faith in the district.  

"If this blatant curriculum, that had a lot of blatant flaws, got through, I wonder what else is happening?" he said.

Other parents were upset that district officials conceded they might have to write off what taxpayers put into the program.

Mariam Omari said she started her kindergartner in a charter school, in part because of concerns about racial disparities in Minneapolis schools.  

"We need that money back," she said. "If we don't get the money back, where are you getting more money from to support your new quote unquote movement toward a new curriculum?"

Goar said the schools' options are limited: The board doesn't want to go back to a curriculum that wasn't working and doesn't want to disrupt the learning that's already started.

"What does that mean? I'm not quite sure," Goar said.