Controversial online curriculum under scrutiny for Hawaii schools

Mark Mauikanehoalani Lovell, a Hawaiiana/Pasifika teacher at Palolo Elementary School, found the multiple-
choice question in the Acellus online curriculum so disturbing that he posted it on Instagram.

“Sen. Daniel Inouye was a: A. Chinese-American immigrant; B. Native American immigrant; C. Japanese-
American immigrant.”

“None of the above” was not one of the answers. Inouye, one of Hawaii’s most famous sons, was born in Honolulu and went on to serve nearly 50 years in the U.S. Senate. It’s just a tiny sample of the Acellus Learning Accelerator curriculum recently purchased by most Hawaii public schools for distance learning.

“Our keiki deserve better,” Lovell said, calling the program “antiquated, xenophobic and inaccurate.”

An Acellus video lesson he posted described Hawaii as “a group of islands in the Pacific that was discovered by Europeans in 1778” — omitting the Polynesian voyagers who long preceded them. It also misspelled the name of Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani.

Palolo Elementary is among 185 public schools across the state that bought yearlong licenses, for up to $100 per student, to use the Acellus Learning Accelerator, which was developed in Kansas City, Mo. A handful of Oahu elementary schools abandoned it last month in the face of parent opposition. But roughly 76,000 students at more than 60% of Hawaii’s public schools have access to it for distance classes or as a supplement to their local teachers’ instruction.

A multidisciplinary team of content and equity specialists at the Department of Education is conducting a comprehensive review of the Acellus video-based curriculum in response to complaints. The department also set up an online form on Sept. 8 for users to report and upload controversial content in any distance learning materials assigned in public schools.

So far there have been 40 submissions involving Acellus and other providers. Deputy Schools Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said Acellus has been responsive in removing problematic content.

At their general business meeting Friday, Board of Education members asked Unebasami to explain how the curriculum was vetted, clarify whether schools could change course and how parents could switch out of the program. Board member Kenneth Uemura said DOE curriculum specialists who gave it an initial look had not recommended it.

“I hope your review goes as fast as possible,” board member Maggie Cox told Unebasami at the virtual meeting. “I know there are going to be parents that absolutely don’t want it at all. We need to have something that schools are able to offer without spending lots more money that we don’t have.”

Cassie Favreau-Chung, whose son is a ninth grader at Mililani High, used the new online form to upload content she found objectionable, and she weighed in strongly against Acellus at the BOE meeting Friday.

“The content in Acellus is outdated, filled with racist and offensive undertones and is simply not rigorous or meant for sustained learning,” Favreau-Chung testified. “One of the biggest concerns is there is absolutely no writing assignments, which is a vital skill to have in many careers. My son has not even written ONE paragraph during this entire first quarter. Instead he is given multiple choice questions of vague lessons he will never retain.

“Our children deserve more than the pitiful attempt at education that Acellus provides,” she added. “Please continue distance learning with actual Hawaii DOE teachers, not an automated program.”

Acellus Learning Accelerator was among three online providers that public schools could select this year, along with Florida Virtual Schools and ASU Prep Digital. Acellus had been used previously in Hawaii for credit recovery for students who failed regular courses, but not as a broader curriculum. Its low cost and familiarity may have spurred schools to choose it, board members said.

Acellus elementary-level modules got only a “cursory review”, the department said, when Superintendent Christina Kishimoto decided in July, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, to allow parents to opt for full distance learning from home rather than face-to-face instruction.

“Acellus and the other programs were a temporary fix for what the schools were facing,” Unebasami said.

She said parents should talk to their principals if they want to switch back to their local school’s teaching program. But she made no guarantees.

“The principals are committed to working with their families to come up with some options that could be considered at their school,” she said.

The deputy superintendent said it was too soon to recommend whether to keep, modify or drop the use of Acellus since the comprehensive review was ongoing.

“I want to underscore the sense of urgency on this,” board member Lynn Fallin said. “I know everyone’s plate is full. But the response from the parents, and their concerns, is significant.”

Thelma Binz, who is overseeing schooling for her grandchildren, said her seventh grader has been turned off by Acellus and her social studies course is dominated by the study of religion.

“After giving the program a chance over the past few weeks, all I’ve noticed is my once brilliant overachiever granddaughter declining in her grades and willingness to go to school,” Binz testified. “She hates the program, the videos are boring and prerecorded.

“Thankfully we have not been subjected to the poor taste in video lessons elementary aged kids have been dealing with,” she wrote. “Please get rid of Acellus!”

Her other two grandchildren have no complaints about virtual learning with their regular teachers at their schools, Binz added.

Acellus offers more than 300 courses in kindergarten through 12th grade. The Acellus Learning Accelerator curriculum used in Hawaii is not accredited, but the affiliated, private, online Acellus Academy is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and College and its Advanced Placement classes are accepted by the College Board.

Parent Amanda Lee, whose daughter is taking AP Chemistry through Acellus, was a lone voice in favor of the program among those testifying Friday.

“I encourage you to keep Acellus as an option for high school students,” she wrote. “I could not teach my child AP Chemistry if my life depended on it so ‘homeschooling’ isn’t an option for us. But she is doing great with Acellus. And her grades are reflecting good understanding of the material.”

As a part-time Hawaiiana/Pasifika teacher, Lovell doesn’t have access to Acellus himself. So he captured content with his cell phone from a fellow teacher’s laptop and has been posting it on his Instagram account.

“I’m taking up this cause for my students,” he said. “The majority of my students come from families that don’t have access to good, reliable civic information. This was the only way that I saw to be able to call attention to something which I found to be completely repulsive.”

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