VUSD takes control away from charter school

Visalia Unified school board votes down key component of Global Learning Charter’s curriculum after claiming the Newsela platform uses biased sources after four years of approving the content service

VISALIA – The Visalia Unified School District board has been a vocal leader in the battle for local control allowing districts to make their own decisions about COVID safety protocols, instructional materials and curriculum. But their recent decision to pull curriculum from one of its charter schools days before the start of the school year suggest they are only in favor of local control if they are the ones in control.

The school board narrowly voted down Global Learning Charter school’s subscription to the Newsela online platform for instructional content at its meeting on Aug. 10, just two days before school was set to begin for the district and its charter schools on Aug. 12.

Trustees John Crabtree and Walta Gamoian both said the content provider’s sources were biased with Gamoian going on to say Newsela teaches critical race theory, a controversial academic concept of systematic racism, especially against Black people, in American institutions and laws throughout history.

“When they are flying banners for Black Lives Matterthat tells me that curriculum is biased,” Gamoian said, referring to the social justice movement which re-emerged into the American consciousness following a white police officer’s murder of a Black man, George Floyd, in May 2020.

Trustees Megan Casebeer Soleno, Jacqui Gaebe and board president Juan Guerrero were in favor of renewing GLC’s Newsela subscription. Following a suggestion from now former superintendent Tamara Ravalin, Soleno motioned for the board to give Global Learning Charter (GLC) control over their own curriculum and let their School Site Council, comprised of the school’s parents, teachers, and community member, make the decision on instructional materials for their students. Ravalin did note it was within the purview of the board to approve all contracts.

“GLC is a charter school. Part of reason they exist is to take students out of the usual curriculum and give them more freedom,” Soleno said. “I feel part of why we created [charter schools] is to have that control at their school site.”

The motion was seconded by Gaebe but failed with trustees Joy Naylor and Christopher Pope, who represents District 6 where GLC is located, joining Crabtree and Gamoian’s opposition to Newsela on a 4-3 vote against. Gaebe made a motion to simply renew GLC’s subscription to Newsela, which failed with the same 4-3 vote.

Gaebe called the decision a vote of non-confidence against teachers at the school. Board Policy on instruction states, “The Governing Board recognizes that the district’s educational program may sometimes include instruction related to controversial issues that may arouse strong reactions based on personal values and beliefs, political philosophy, culture, religion, or other influences. Instruction concerning such topics shall be relevant to the adopted course of study and curricular goals and should be designed to develop students’ critical thinking skills, ability to discriminate between fact and opinion, respect for others, and understanding and tolerance of diverse points of view.”

Gaebe said it doesn’t matter if there are articles available regarding critical race theory or Black Lives Matter because those are not part of the district’s standards.

“Our teachers are teaching standards and are not using this to teach personal bias,” Gaebe said. “Instead of a curation of resources, which the paid version tracks what our students are reading, without that we’re asking them to go wild on the internet using Wikipedia. There are sources out there that are entirely made up and extremely biased. This is a curated resource that actually protects our students and the resources that they are reading.”

Content critique

GLC principal Karin Aure and middle school teacher Amy Downs presented how GLC uses Newsela to the board at its June 8 meeting in its request to renew the service. They showed examples of science articles on helping students understand their skeletal system, how the pest known as Asian citrus psyllid can kill citrus trees down the road, and how they aligned with state standards. More importantly, they showed social studies examples about the Dust Bowl migration to the San Joaquin Valley, the history of MesoAmerican ball game and what life in America would be like without the Revolutionary War, also aligned with standards.

“We keep saying its biased but there is not one article someone has produced to show a bias yet,” Gaebe said at the Aug. 10 meeting. “I’m not sure why we are even discussing this. Our teachers are not trying to spread their personal opinions on our students.”

Gaebe’s claims appear to be accurate as Gamoian, Crabtree and Naylor, the three board members who had previously approved GLC’s use of Newsela for GLC and another school in 2019, did not respond to The Sun-Gazette’s request for any articles or sources of information they were concerned with and the reason for their concern.

Newsela is aligned with state standards for science, social studies and ELA in every state. In 2020-21, about one-third (395) of VUSD’s own teachers were using the free version of Newsela in their classrooms.

“I think there was a lack of understanding of what Newsela is,” Aure said. “If you are concerned with banners about Black Lives Matters and equity statements, all publishers, including older more traditional ones, have them.”

A quick tour of the content includes articles like “Greek influence on U.S. democracy,” “Should Election Day become a national holiday?” and “Prisoner’s voting rights is a hot-button topic in Massachusetts.” The company says its “articles are thoroughly vetted so they do not contain any unexpected sensitive content that teachers or students might encounter” and that opinion pieces, thought pieces, and expert advice “are clearly marked ‘opinion’ at every level in all headlines to ensure clarity to all readers and prevent confusion.” The company has even instituted anti-bias measures by seeking “predominantly centrist news sources” to ensure their content is fair and balanced.

“When selecting political content, we ensure articles come from a diverse array of sources, presenting multiple sides of an issue, logical arguments, and opinions by credible authorities.”

Content providers includes reputable news outlets including The New York Times, Associated Press, PBS News Hour, Columbia University Press, and The Christian Science Monitor, respected historical sites including National Geographic, White House Historical Association, Smithsonian.com, and the History Channel.

“Our editorial team initiates extra rounds of fact-checking and editing on content about complex topics, such as addiction and violence,” the company states on its web site. “We publish content that supports media literacy and encourages students to do their own fact-checking and searches for bias.”

Gamoian could be referring to Newsela’s “Anti-Bias, Anti-Racist Framework” for social studies and science. The initiative focuses on providing students with “balanced sources” and “positive images and representation” of Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), religious or cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, and gender identities as well as the “inequitable treatment” of these people and how the country is addressing them. It offers students the tools to voice their concerns, to volunteer in their community through service or advocacy and to empower them to take meaningful action.

The social studies section includes articles on “The complicated pride of Native Hawaiians in the military,” “These colleges produced generations of Black women leaders,” “Amid pandemic, audio app creates space for women-led worship during Ramadan” and “LGBTQ+ Rights Movement.” The science section included lessons on “Black Excellence in STEM,” “Gender Equality in Space Science,” and “School program tries to help more girls focus on science, math classes.”

Content partners for this section include The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, non-profit journalism web site about the criminal justice system, and The Undefeated, ESPN’s documentary take on the intersections of race, sports and culture.

It also included the Zinn Education Project, based on Howard Zinn’s 1980 book called “A People’s History of the United States,” a controversial book rejected by most historians, and Learning for Justice, formerly Teaching Tolerance, an outgrowth of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Zinn Education Project is an education partner of Black Lives Matter and a proponent of critical race theory.

Learning for Justice calls itself a “catalyst for racial justice.” It says it works in partnership with communities to “dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements and advance the human rights of all people.” Their topics range from race to religion and ability to activism. They are vocal supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement and do have articles discussing critical race theory from credible news sources.

Aure said she was not familiar with Newsela’s “Anti-Bias, Anti-Racist Framework” and said it was not used by the school.

“We have not used that framework at all,” Aure said. “Our use of Newsela was not connected to critical race theory at all and we showed the board that. Parents saw it in their living rooms during the pandemic and we have only had positive feedback.”

Content with content

The only person to speak publicly against the Newsela platform was Rick Wehmueller. He said he had researched public comments about the use of Newsela in other public school districts and found most of the concerns were about its use of “biased materials” and cited reputable news sources like CNN, New York Times and Washington Post.

“I wanted to find out if there is an opportunity for the school district to use balanced type learning at the Global Learning Center?” he said. In an interview after the meeting, Aure said this individual had never visited the school, talked to any of its staff and did not have a child or grandchild attending the school, as far as the school knew.

Kevin Martin, parent of a student at GLC, said he had watched many of the videos on Newsela and didn’t see any biased information like what Wehmueller and the board members claimed.

“It’s just a source of information to illicit discussion in the classroom,” Martin said. “It’s a good tool in the teacher’s toolbox.”

Yesenia Lemos said a flexible, creative and diverse curriculum is why she and her husband chose to send their daughter to GLC. She said her own parents used art and news to teach her about the world around her and how to critically think about and develop her own views, something she saw in GLC and its use of Newsela. Some articles inspired her daughter to pursue music song writing, encouraged their family to make recipes together and buy seeds to plant a garden to learn about the life cycle of plants.

“If this program is having a positive impact, why are we taking away something that is proven to help children learn?” Lemos said. “Honor the reason why parents chose GLC.”

As head of the Visalia Unified Teachers Association, Greg Price described Newsela simply as a search engine to articles available at different reading levels. He said teachers at GLC have found Newsela to be an invaluable tool which saves them time and engages every student in the class regardless of their reading level.

“Academic freedom is always a main tenant of education,” Price said, “encouraging freedom for students to think.”

Critical curriculum

GLC’s principal said she was disappointed in the timing of the decision two days before the start of school. Aure said GLC has used the Newsela service ever since it opened in 2017 and has yet to find another software as dynamic with multimedia lessons, like materials by reading level, links to more information, tracking what kids read and comprehend, and easily annotatable for teachers. It was so effective, GLC built its entire project based learning model for social studies and science around the online service. She said teachers are now working longer hours each week to rebuild their lesson plans on a week-by-week basis until the school can replace it with a new learning platform.

“This really took away a critical tool for teachers,” Aure said. “We are not a textbook school. We meet the standards through different approaches and personalizing the curriculum.”

Amy Downs is one of VUSD’s two former VUSD teachers of the year, along with Laura Mohs, now teaching at Global Charter Learning, which even boasts a former VUSD classified employee of the year in Jill Dinkins. She said she is spending an extra 2 to 3 hours per week doing the heavy lifting of trying to build a new curriculum without falling behind on pacing for topics in those subject areas. It also takes more time now for teachers to meet in teams and ensure all teachers are on the same page for the school’s curriculum.

“By reading articles from a variety of sources we can discuss and teach media literacy, how to discern between trusted and untrustworthy sources, and digital literacy, using vetted information,” Downs said.

Aure said there seems to be a misalignment with the board and district policy. The board had approved of Newsela every year Global Charter Learning was in existence and unanimously approved it for another school, Willow Glenn Elementary, in 2019, including the board president Crabtree who had voiced his concerns about bias.

“The district says it cares about equity and inclusion and cultural proficiency and every publisher shares those interests,” Aure said.

Downs said there might even be some confusion about what they say they are concerned with. Board Policy 415 states the board shall develop and implement policies and strategies to promote equity in district programs and activities, through measures such as … “Adopting curriculum and instructional materials that accurately reflect the diversity among student groups.” Downs said one of the district’s goals is to offer culturally responsive teaching (CRT), not to be confused with critical race theory (also CRT).

According to the U.S. Department of Education, culturally responsive teaching is defined as allowing “educators to address social barriers that cause disparities in student achievement; by tailoring instruction to be mindful of these barriers, educators can help students overcome obstacles and succeed. Responsive classrooms also mitigate the effects of negative cultural stereotypes on student performance.”

Not only does the district have a “culturally proficiency” policy, it has also established a Cultural Proficiency Advisory Council and created an entire department titled “Equity and Student Services with an administrator of equity and student services.

“As teachers, we need to analyze our own bias and take into account the culture, perspective and point of view of our students,” Downs said.

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