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Ohio County Superintendent: Parents’ input on books considered

OHIO COUNTY SCHOOLS SUPERINTENDENT KIM MILLER

WHEELING — The Ohio County Schools textbook controversy, according to district officials, ends with books going back onto the shelves – though they may be higher ones only the teacher can reach.

It has been decided all the language arts books last month deemed inappropriate for young readers mostly because of their illustrations will at least be read aloud to students, according to Ohio County Students Services Director Raquel McLeod.

The textbook adoption committee next begins its work to decide what science textbooks and materials the county will use beginning next year, and this time the community will again be permitted to participate in the process.

“We will continue to work with teachers, listen to the community, and teach the objectives and standards needed for educating students,” Ohio County Schools Superintendent Kim Miller said. “We do appreciate community input.”

Parents have always been given the opportunity to review and discuss textbooks during their selection, but that didn’t happen last year because of COVID-19 restrictions, she acknowledged.

Those wanting to participate should contact the Ohio County Schools central office at 304-243-0300. Messages inviting parents also will go out through the school district’s communication system.

Textbooks are just one tool teachers have in their tool box when teaching students, Miller explained.

And teachers are experienced enough to know which tool they need to deliver a message, she added.

“Part of their expertise is to choose the tool that best accomplishes getting objectives and standards taught,” Miller said. “Teachers are professionals, and they make these decisions everyday.”

Last year, the textbook committee, made up of teachers throughout the district, selected the “Wit and Wisdom” reading series. Later, a conservative group voiced its concerns about the series to school administrators.

Miller answered “sure” when asked if these concerns played a part in the removal of books.

“Community input is always part of the review process,” Miller explained. “Now that COVID has passed, we’ll have the opportunity to reconnect with the community.”

The Return Of The Books

McLeod stressed all the books previously under scrutiny now will be part of the curriculum in Ohio County’s elementary schools.

“No books are being removed. We’re using all of them,” she said. “The two books with inappropriate photos we’re using as read alouds. The teachers are able to show all photos except the ones inappropriate.

“This allows the teachers to still use the lessons that go with the books. Students still can hear the stories and discuss the stories without exposure to racial slurs.”

“Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington” by Frances E. Ruffin now will be read aloud to second grade classes, according to McLeod. Teachers have been instructed to share all illustrations except one depicting Black people being sprayed with fire hoses.

“Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story” by Ruby Bridges also will be read aloud to students. Teachers will share all illustrations except one showing an racial epithet.

That book had been intended as an alternative to another that sparked concerns, the Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, that was deemed inappropriate for second grade students.

Each student will receive a copy of Coles’ book to use for partner reads and individual reading, according to McLeod.

She acknowledged the two books have been confused by administrators.

Teachers also will now read aloud to third grade students “Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei” by Peter Sis and share its Caldecott Award-winning illustrations.

Fourth grade teachers will meet this summer to discuss four other novels “with a focus on grade level and age appropriateness,” according to McLeod. The books will not be taught this school year because of time constraints.

They are “Gifts from the Gods: Ancient Words and Wisdom from Greek and Roman Myths” by Natalie Hyde; “Pushing Up the Sky: Seven Native American Plays for Children” by Lisa Lunge-Larsen; “Understanding Greek Myths” by Joseph Bruchac; and “Walk Two Moons” by Sharon Creech.

Craig: No Vote Among Teachers Taken On Books

Curriculum standards at the county level are reviewed every six years by the West Virginia Department of Education per state code, Ohio County Education Assocation President Jenny Craig explained.

The WVDOE determines which textbook companies meet at least 80% of required state content standards per grade level, and this list is sent to county school districts.

The counties then form committees of teachers to evaluate the textbooks. All teachers in the subject area are welcome to participate, and there is an effort to have an even balance of educators from all grade levels, she said.

About 50 teachers participated in the selection of the language arts series before narrowly selecting the “Wit and Wisdom” books, according to Craig.

“Since the vote was so close, they put it to a vote of all elementary teachers,” she said. “That vote also came back for ‘Wit and Wisdom.'”

Some teachers told her their reason for the vote, explaining the series aligned very well with a phonics program already being used, as well as with other materials in the classroom.

All seemed to be in place until early August, she said, when the school district began to receive concerns about the new reading program from the group “Ohio County Concerned Parents.”

Craig said the group’s members were aware of a nationwide group, “Moms for Liberty,” who opposed the “Wit and Wisdom” program. The nationwide group had made a lengthy video outlining their concerns regarding about 30 books contained in the reading series.

Ohio County Concerned Parents’ opposition to Ohio County Schools using “Wit and Wisdom” came to light during a board of education meeting Aug. 8 at West Liberty Elementary School.

“We have gotten some calls from those concerned about the curriculum,” Assistant Superintendent Rick Jones said at the meeting. “We have put together a group that is going to look at the curriculum.”

The plan was for the controversial books to again be reviewed by the committee, which would decide whether to pull some from the curriculum or scrap the “Wit and Wisdom” series altogether, he explained.

Teachers were again invited to participate in the process on Aug. 24 – the day before school started, according to Craig. The educators spoke out for and against the appropriateness of each book.

Craig doesn’t remember at the meeting anyone calling for any book to be removed.

“It wasn’t the committee – or the board of education in a public meeting – who decided,” she said. “They discussed it, but didn’t vote.”

She said there was no more activity on the topic until Feb. 14, when, during a professional learning day, elementary teachers were told to remove and box up 10 books that were in their classrooms. None of the books in question had yet been presented to students, as they were intended for reading later in the year, according to Craig.

“I don’t remember anyone ever saying ‘we’re replacing these books,'” Craig said. “A lot of people didn’t know (about the earlier controversy and review). That is why the outcry happened now.”

McLeod: Teachers Were In Consensus

McLeod disagreed with Craig and said discussions about the appropriateness of the new books actually started in July and not the day before school started.

At that time, the committee did not take a formal vote “but came to a consensus” about each book, she said.

McLeod also denied there was a directive on Feb. 14 to teachers to box up books in question.

“There was discussion that day to see what was working, and not working with the new series,” she said. “They shared thoughts on lessons they thought were really good, and looked at what additional resources to make our lessons even better.

“This is something we do once every nine weeks, either in grade level articulations or professional learning days.”

McLeod said Craig was “incorrect” in telling her version of how the textbook adoption process took place.

“I sent her information so she could be better informed,” McLeod said. “She said she appreciated it. And I told her if there were any questions to reach out to me.”

Craig said she did receive the information from McLeod. She stood behind her earlier comments, but didn’t wish to add any more comment on the issue.

McLeod said she did meet with members of “Ohio County Concerned Parents” to hear their concerns.

She explained the school district’s policy is that when a parent or group of parents has a concern, administrators meet with them individually or as a group. Sometimes a phone discussion is sufficient.

“It just depends on what people want to do,” she said.

As the textbook adoption committee now reviews science text books, McLeod said the thought is the process will be opened up to more public input.

“What we will do is – because COVID is now on the downward trend – we will invite any parents to come review the books and offer their thoughts,” she said.

“We invite even more people to come join,” McLeod added. “We are hoping to get some younger members of the community to join in. We are looking for anyone who wants to join in making learning the best for children.”

Concerned Parents ‘Just Want To Be Heard’

Carlee Dittmar is among the local conservatives who began contacting Ohio County Schools administrators last year with their concerns about the curriculum, and she has been attending recent board of education meetings.

She is especially critical of any teachings relating to critical race theory.

“It’s kind of interesting,” she said of the book controversy. “I do not want to dictate (what is being taught), but I also don’t want these kids to be learning things at an early age that seem to focus on hate.”

Dittmar said she first contacted the State Department of Education with concerns. Employees there referred her to Ohio County Schools officials, explaining local school districts are responsible for what is taught in their classrooms.

Dittmar said next she spoke with some Ohio County Schools admisistrators, who didn’t seem to take her concerns seriously.

“If they would call back and take the time to listen … they would see that our concerns are not any different than they are anywhere else worldwide,” she said. “People don’t need to get angry, but nobody says anything back to us when we say something. They say nothing.

“People just want to be acknowledged. They just want to know that you are listening to us, that we are not alone,” Dittmar said.

Miller denied administrators didn’t take voiced concerns seriously.

“We pay attention to everybody that comes to talk to us – parents, students and community members,” she said. “I’m not singling any group out. We work with people, and work through concerns, suggestions.

“I don’t think any group has been ignored at all,” Miller continued. “We’ve done our best to give anyone a voice. But we are going to focus first on doing what’s best for the mental, social and emotional well-being. Our focus is on our kids first.”

At the start of the school year, administrators already were under pressure while preparing to reopen schools to in-person learning during the COVID pandemic, according to Craig.

“I think that was another reason why this wasn’t done in another manner. Our administration was bogged down with a number of decisions about keeping students safe,” she said.

And the Ohio County Board of Education should be involved and have to take a vote if there are thoughts of removing books from the classroom, according to Craig.

“I feel if there is ever a question about a book being appropriate, that we have an elected board of education for a reason,” she said. “They should be part of the process. I hope that is what happens with the science curriculum.

“No one I talked to feels anyone in the administration was willilingly racist or anti-science. We just need to make sure moving forward we have a protocol moving forward – especially since we are adopting science books,” she said.

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