A parent last week asked the Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board for more transparency when it comes to the materials teachers use in the classroom.
At issue was the district’s English Language Arts program from Savvas Learning Co. for grades 7-12, which comes with a supplemental reading list.
“I want to address the issue of transparency – or rather some holes in the transparency – in GPS,” said Chad Thompson, a small-business owner who’s running for one of the three open GPS board seats in November. “There’s no place where parents can go and see exactly what materials their children’s teachers are using in the classroom.”
According to the dad of four GPS students, Savvas offers technical capabilities to aid teacher success but he said, “there are very questionable supplemental materials within this office curriculum that are inappropriate and potentially damaging to the developing minds of our students.”
Thompson cited two books from that supplemental list,: “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and “Looking for Alaska.”
“‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower,’ this book is about a boy that is sexually abused by his aunt and includes scenes of sex, drugs, multiple incidents of homosexual sex abuse of a minor, pedophilia and bullying,” Thompson said.
“‘Looking for Alaska,’ this book is the fourth most banned book in the U.S. because of the extreme sexual content – like three pages dedicated to … promiscuous teenage sex, teenagers watching pornography, masturbation, drugs, profanity, underage drinking and drinking and driving, suicide and detailed language describing various sex acts.
“These are just a couple of the thousands of supplemental materials available to teachers.”
Both books are described as coming-of-age stories for teen readers and both have had their fair share of bans and challenges.
“The novels specifically referenced by a speaker at the Governing Board meeting on July 26 are not part of the GPS curriculum and are not used in our classrooms,” district spokeswoman Dawn Antestenis said in an email the following day.
Thompson said GPS has amazing teachers and he didn’t think they would do anything intentionally to negatively affect pupils or infringe on parental rights.
The district did experience an inadvertent use of questionable material in December 2021.
Eighth-grade math students at Mesquite Junior High School were handed an assignment by a substitute teacher that included multiple choice questions involving child sexual assault and prostitution.
GPS at the time stated it resolved the issue and noted that the assignment was not part of the district’s adopted curriculum or on any approved supplemental materials.
Thompson, who has been critical of the board’s decision to close schools and force a mask mandate during the pandemic, is a proponent of parental rights.
His campaign platform includes a promise “to be an unwavering voice against the onslaught of politically biased and divisive programs trying to indoctrinate our children.”
Thompson also is endorsed by Purple for Parents, a conservative group formed in 2018, touting itself as a vehicle for parents to air their frustrations with teacher strikes, school closures, and the politicization of K-12 classrooms.
“Supplement materials like this and the lack of transparency leaves opportunities for some of these very questionable materials finding their way into the classroom without parental knowledge or consent,” Thompson said “I would think complete transparency would benefit and protect teachers as much as it would students.”
He said the district could create a portal for parents to click to see what materials their child’s teacher was planning to use in the upcoming weeks and update throughout the school year.
“Everyone, including parents will know exactly what is being taught and what materials are being used,” Thompson said. “This would require minimal effort on the part of teachers and the benefits would be enormous. I encourage this board to find ways to be more transparent with parents so trust can be maintained and even increased.”
Board President Lori Wood said she would like for the district to address Thompson’s concern and asked if it could be presented at the next meeting. Because Thompson’s issue was not on the agenda the board under state law was prohibited from discussing it last week.
Superintendent Dr. Shane McCord said he would first like to talk with Assistant Superintendent Dr. Barbara Newman, who oversees teaching and learning, before responding to Wood.
The Governing Board on May 3 approved spending $2.7 million to purchase and adopt the materials, which staff said would promote a balance approach to teaching literacy.
“When the 7-12 My Perspectives curriculum was adopted, no new novels were approved nor included in the adoption,” Antestenis explained. “Only novels that are currently on the GPS approved novel list are used.”
Antestenis said that all GPS curriculum adoptions go through a formal approval process.
The process includes review by a committee of teachers, parents, school and district administrators, an evaluation process and pilot implementation, as well as Governing Board meeting presentations and a 90-day public review period as required by law, according to Antestenis.
With regard to the use of novels that have already been approved and used for learning, a process is in place where students and families have the opportunity to opt-out of reading a particular novel, Antestenis said.
“At that time, the student and family would work with the teacher to identify an alternative novel to ensure it is matched to the learning outcome,” she said.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature attempted to do just what Thompson has asked for.
A state Senate bill was introduced mandating public and charter schools list on their websites all the materials and activities being used in the classroom for parents to view but the measure failed in the House. Gilbert Republican Sen. Warren Petersen co-sponsored SB 1211.