Hawaii school board chief Catherine Payne urges dropping Acellus online curriculum

Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne wants Hawaii’s schools to stop using the Acellus distance-learning program by the end of the academic year and allow parents to opt out immediately.

Payne has put the subject on the agenda for action at Thursday’s board meeting, directing the Department of Education to phase out the controversial curriculum. In a memo, she called the department’s selection of Acellus “a mistake made in the midst of chaos brought on by the pandemic.”

Some teachers and parents in Hawaii have decried the content on the video-based instructional platform as racist, sexist, inaccurate, outdated and lacking rigor. The Acellus Learning Accelerator, owned by the unaccredited International Academy of Science in Kansas City, Mo., offers more than 300 courses in kindergarten through 12th grade and is used by home­schooling students and schools across the country.

Previously, Acellus online courses had been used by some secondary schools in Hawaii on a remedial basis for students needing to make up classes they had failed. But in the push for distance learning due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Education offered the Acellus Learning Accelerator as an option to schools this fall, along with Arizona State University Prep Digital and Florida Virtual School Global.

Acellus proved popular for its ease of use and low cost. Altogether, 185 Hawaii public schools signed on, or 60% of the state’s public schools, buying yearlong licenses for $25 to $100 per student. Several elementary schools have since abandoned it, but about 76,000 Hawaii students have access to it either for distance classes or as a supplement to their own teachers’ instruction.

Payne said Acellus was selected in haste and not properly vetted for alignment to board policies and grade-level standards.

“While I understand the department’s unwillingness to admit that the selection of Acellus was a mistake until it completes a comprehensive review of the program, I believe the sheer number of negative experiences expressed to the board through testimony and other means is evidence enough,” Payne said. “Concerns about Acellus from the public include racist and culturally insensitive content and lack of rigor.”

In response to complaints about Acellus, the Department of Education just completed a comprehensive review of the curriculum and was due to report its findings to the board Thursday.

“The concerns raised warrant action by the department,” Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said in a statement late Friday. “We are working to move forward in a manner that supports our students in the least disruptive manner possible. We look forward to sharing our transition plan with the board.”

The department had set up an online form to allow parents to report objectionable content, and the company has removed and revised some items. They include a lesson on the economic justifications for slavery; another about Harriet Tubman that included an image of a bank robber; and a question about Osama Bin Laden that referred to the “Towelban.”

A video lesson that raised local hackles described Hawaii as a “group of islands in the Pacific discovered by Europeans in 1778,” omitting the Polynesian voyagers who long preceded them and settled here first. Another one called Sen. Daniel Inouye, who represented Hawaii for nearly 50 years in Congress, an immigrant although he was born and raised in Honolulu.

Paige Kemerer, a third grade teacher at Kapaa Elementary School on Kauai, found inappropriate content, mistakes, stereotypes and sexism in the curriculum and decided against using it. She said the company has fixed some items, such as inaccurate information about Rosa Parks and stereotypes such as beer mugs to illustrate St. Patrick’s Day, but that the problems are systemic.

“Acellus has largely ignored my concerns about the sexism embedded in the curriculum in the form of rigid gender roles and the dearth of females shown in careers or leadership,” Kemerer said. “I am advocating for the removal of Acellus from our schools because I believe it is harmful and our students deserve better.”

The Acellus Learning Accelerator curriculum is not accredited. But the affiliated, private online Acellus Academy is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and its Advanced Placement classes are accepted by the College Board.

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