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CMS Anti-Racist Reading Curriculum Faces Changes For Remote Instruction

Second-graders at Huntersville Elementary  doing an EL literacy lesson in March, before schools closed.
Second-graders at Huntersville Elementary doing an EL literacy lesson in March, before schools closed.

Last year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rolled out a new reading curriculum chosen in part for its anti-racism focus. This year, that program has been modified for remote instruction, and the deletion of sensitive topics has some wondering whether the social justice themes are being watered down.

Torrence Creek Elementary teacher Crystal Pompée was taken aback when she got information from EL Education about this year's special curriculum in early August. It said lessons related to the Holocaust, epidemics and racial discrimination had been deleted this year because they are “triggering” for students and challenging for teachers to handle remotely.

"Like, if now’s not the time to talk about those injustices, when is the good time?" she wondered.

Pompée is a fourth grade teacher, so this is her first encounter with the new curriculum. Students in grades K-3 and 6th took part in last year’s pilot launch, which cost CMS more than $7 million. District leaders were eager to replace a hodge-podge of approaches to reading instruction with one districtwide program.

They chose EL Education. It’s a company based in New York City that traces its rootsto a 1991 partnership between Outward Bound and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Wake County, North Carolina’s largest school district, also uses the EL curriculum.

First-graders at Huntersville Elementary did a seed-distribution lab tied into their reading lessons in March.
Credit Ann Doss Helms / WFAE
First-graders at Huntersville Elementary did a seed-distribution lab tied into their reading lessons in March.

In the early grades, the EL program focuses on topics like toys, trees and birds. Last year K-3 students spent three hours a day on literacy lessons that included traditional phonics work, class discussions of reading and writing, and hands-on labs. For instance, first-graders tested methods of seed distribution after reading about it.

Anti-Racist Education

But Chief Academic Officer Brian Kingsley says there’s another reason CMS chose EL, one that would become clearer once older students started using the material.

"We decided to invest with EL Education not just because of its high alignment to our state standards but because across all of its modules and topics they begin to address issues of social justice, racism, anti-racism and cultural proficiency," Kingsley said.

A statement on equity and anti-racism is posted prominently on the EL Education website. It begins: "The current education system is broken — promising limitless possibilities while perpetuating deep inequities. We believe in an anti-racist education that equips every child with the knowledge, skills, and passion to create a more equitable and just world." 

The company promises to meet that goal through its selection of reading material and “explicit anti-racist discussion, practice, and action.”

Pandemic Forces Change

Of course, the EL pilot in CMS collided with the coronavirus. Gov. Roy Cooper closed schools in mid-March, forcing everyone to scramble to create remote learning programs.

CMS had hoped to see gains on third-grade reading scores, though officials had warned not to expect miracles in one year. Across the state, districts have been unable to bring the majority of Black and Hispanic third-graders up to grade-level reading. The school shutdown ended up canceling end-of-grade exams, so there was no data.

This year, CMS expanded the EL program into grades K-8. WFAE asked the cost, but as of Thursday evening CMS had not provided that information.

By summer, as it became clear remote learning would continue into this school year, CMS and EL worked on lesson plans tailored to kids working at home from computers. The hands-on labs had to go. Students would be still have reading and group discussions, but it would all be online.

Because that takes time and creates new demands on teachers and students, EL switched from four nine-week themes – known as modules – to three 12-week modules.

Assistant Superintendent Beth Thompson says EL used three guides to deciding which modules to cut: "The first being maintaining diversity, the second being ensuring content is appropriate for students in a remote environment, and the third being minimizing the impact in terms of standards."

Triggers And Challenges

Pompée, the Torrence Creek fourth grade teacher, was dismayed at what she saw.

"For instance, fourth grade, they don’t talk about women’s sufferage, so the 19th Amendment isn’t in there," she said. "They took out the Spanish influenza and they took out racial injustices and discrimination."

The EL online guide says the fourth-grade module titled “Responding to Inequality” was eliminated because "the text contains references to the Spanish Influenza and racial discrimination, both of which may be triggering for this age group given what is happening in the world. If fully remote, these issues may be challenging for a teacher to provide support and sufficient guidance around."

There are similar explanations in other grades: A seventh-grade module on epidemics was described as “triggering given what is happening in the world related to COVID-19,” and an eighth-grade module on the Holocaust was deemed to be emotionally stressful when coupled with a module on Japanese American internment during World War II.

The CMS administrative team working on taking EL remote understands Pompée’s concern. They say they’ve heard it from other sources too. Brandy Nelson, one of the administrators involved, says CMS isn’t crazy about the way EL explained the omissions, because she doesn’t think remote learning should squelch discussion of tough topics.

"Our commitment to teaching about racial justice, regardless of whether children are sitting in chairs physically or whether they’re sitting in other places and doing it remotely, the charge is the same and the commitment is the same," she said.

Adding to the confusion, the administrators say, is the fact that the EL link also describes a version of the curriculum that CMS isn’t using. So CMS teachers can see an explanation for removing a seventh-grade module on slavery and an eighth-grade module on the civil rights movement, but that doesn’t apply here.

Not Backing Away

CMS says there will be plenty of work related to social and racial justice this year, in the EL modules that remain and in the social studies curriculum. For instance, eighth-graders won’t discuss the Holocaust in language arts, but they studied it in world history as seventh-graders.

The administrative team says they’ll explain that to teachers – and to concerned community members – in the weeks ahead.

In a welcome-back message to teachers, Superintendent Earnest Winston identified anti-racism work as a top priority for this school year. Kingsley, the academic chief, says instruction is going to support that goal.

"When we look at our data we can currently predict performance based upon race," he said. "And that’s not because of anything other than our inability as adults to identify the ways that we can figure out to address those gaps and teach with greater precision."

The majority of CMS students are Black and brown, and many of them come from low-income homes. Their success is vital to the success of CMS. Right now, in the first week of school, the challenge is making sure all students get connected to the internet – and to their schools – so the next steps in remote learning can play out.

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Copyright 2020 WFAE

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.