A series of controversies on the digital platform prompts the district to seek alternatives.
BY NOAH MIZER, ‘21 AND MATTHEW DORON, ‘23.
As the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise in the United States, UAHS students were given the option of two learning paths for the 2020-2021 school year. The first path, hybrid learning, divided the student body into two groups, with only one group attending the school on a given day while the other group completes digital learning assignments. The second option offered to students consisted entirely of online learning through a platform called Acellus.
Acellus offers a variety of courses from the preschool to the high school level. However, the UA School District made a decision to switch from Acellus to a different online program, Edgenuity, due to citywide complaints of Acellus hosting stereotypical and offensive content.
While Acellus provides a variety of course options to students, especially for high-schoolers, parents felt the program presented lessons in a way that was inappropriate for young children.
Associate Superintendent of Learning and Leadership Dr. Andy Hatton said, “It was the delivery of some of the content that was very concerning and examples started to come to light almost daily in the opening days of school, and primarily at the elementary level. [I]t wasn’t necessarily the content itself, it was delivery of the content that was just so concerning and then as days went on, more reports came in.”
One incident that received attention from parents and administrators was an elementary math lesson that began by addressing the question: Why do we need math? An instructor then answered this question by listing various professions, such as a doctor or scientist. The lesson presented a wide array of professions represented by a diverse set of characters. However, as the lesson came to a close, gender roles began to emerge. Explaining how math is used in different walks of life, the instructor said, “even moms need math,” and showed a photo of a woman in an apron, surrounded by children, in a modern-day kitchen, cooking.
This incident pushed harmful gender stereotypes on young children, according to Hatton. “That sent a strong signal perpetuating a female stereotype [to young kids],” he said.
Along with perpetrating outdated stereotypes, there was suggestive content, most notably in an elementary-level book, involving a character named “Sweetie Lips” and sexually inappropriate dialogue.
The most infamous of these controversies was at the kindergarten level. While teaching the alphabet, the instructor pulled items out of a box that began with that specific letter. When she reached the letter G, she pulled out a six-shooter revolver and said “G is for gun.” She also held the toy revolver to her head and explained that it was a “good thing it has [an] orange tip so we know it’s a toy,” Hatton paraphrased. While this incident was one of the later ones to come to the district’s attention, it stood out.
“[I]t’s just poor form [and] poor taste. It has nothing to do with how anyone feels about the Second Amendment, it’s just not [acceptable] in a public school,” Hatton said.
Chief Academic Officer Keith Pomeroy said this particular incident was a turning point for the district. “It’s not just the number of incidents, it’s the type of incidents that we were seeing in terms of the way the content was being delivered that were concerning and really led us to make the decision that we needed to change platforms,” he said.
Search Near and Far
“While we know that there isn’t a single perfect digital resource, we do feel we must shift away from the Acellus platform at the elementary level and evaluate other options at the secondary level,” Superintendent Dr. Paul Imhoff wrote to families on Aug. 28.
After a period of research and communication with students, staff and parents, the district decided to transition Online Academy students in grades 6-12 to Edgenuity and Accelerate Education, while keeping Acellus for certain elective courses. For elementary students, courses on Acellus were replaced with a variety of platforms, such as Dreambox and RaxKids.
Edgenuity and Accelerate Education were chosen for the secondary students because of their unique abilities to handle the separate content areas, Pomeroy said. “As we looked at the platforms, we did analysis of what we thought would be the best option for each content area, and that’s why we landed on Edgenuity and Accelerate [Education] in those two settings,” he said.
Pomeroy said that unique offerings, such as at-home lab kits for AP science classes and global language content from Middlebury, were paramount in choosing Accelerate.
Edgenuity was chosen because it is more rigorous than Acellus, having more in-depth instruction and more writing assignments. “[W]e expect 15 to 20% of the assignments to include writing across the curriculum … [that’s] really important because writing across the curriculum … shows your ability to take that content and apply it,” Pomeroy said, “so we felt that that was an important part and both of the platforms provide more than what we were seeing before.”
Students transitioned to Edgenuity on Sept. 21, to fairly positive reception. “I feel like [Edgenuity is] a lot better organized, … Edgenuity is better suited for some students,” sophomore Qwynn Starrwalker said of the new platform. Starrwalker also said that Edgenuity offers more up-to-date and in-depth content compared to Acellus.
“What I really like about the overall course is that it’s self-paced,” sophomore Ava Richard said. “They give you recommended dates when to complete things, but what I really appreciate about the whole aspect is that you can work ahead fairly easily.”
However, Richard also experienced several difficulties in her transition from Enhanced Distance Learning to Edgenuity. “It’s just difficult transferring this stuff from Enhanced Distance Learning, … I think the transfer between Enhanced Distance Learning to Edgenuity was probably the hardest thing,” she said. Despite these challenges, Richard enjoys Edgenuity. “Overall, I think the course is really easy to maneuver.”
While Starrwalker and Richard enjoy Edgenuity, sophomore Leah Tucker believes the district made the wrong decision. “I think it was kind of a poor decision. I know a lot of it was based [on] parent feedback, not student [feedback] and it was mostly geared towards the elementary levels because of their problem with Acellus, but I don’t really like Edgenuity,” she said. Tucker said she prefers Acellus over Edgenuity because Edgenuity is “just not as straightforward … there’s a lot of different steps to just answer a question and … it’s very tedious.”
Tucker suggested utilizing Canvas in addition to Acellus as an alternative to Edgenuity for high school students. While elementary and middle school students would use a variety of platforms, she suggested the high school “could have just supplemented more rigorous stuff on Canvas because, I mean, in my opinion, Acellus is much easier than Edgenuity to navigate and understand.”
Although Edgenuity and Accelerate Education are being used for the majority of courses, certain courses are staying on Acellus. The majority of these classes are electives, with the exception of AP European History, in addition to electives that are not typically offered at UAHS, such as Agriculture 1, Medical Terminology and various other technical classes.
Confusion and Communication
While students are now settled into Edgenuity, the transition unearthed several issues within the Online Academy as a whole, specifically a lack of communication.
“I feel like [the administration is] not giving good enough instructions to the students that are completely online because I’ve experienced a lot of confusion … while I was switching from Acellus to Edgenuity. It’s been really difficult,” Starrwalker said.
Both Tucker and Richard were confused during the transition, as they felt there was not enough information given to students. Tucker made a suggestion; “They could have a set place for announcements and stuff because I’m getting a lot of information from … different sources and a lot of it doesn’t line up.”
Richard believes some of her teachers are maintaining good communication, but she still feels isolated from both teachers and peers. “[Communication] could be improved because … [online school feels] almost isolated from everyone else because you don’t really get to communicate with others that much.”
Starrwalker proposed a solution to the confusion and isolation of the Online Academy. “I feel like there should be more mandatory [advisory] meetings. [For example,] my advisory only meets once a week and my adviser doesn’t really go over a lot of helpful stuff and she doesn’t ask for student questions. I think there should be more meetings with advisory teachers,” she said.
In addition, Starrwalker thinks teachers need to individually meet with students. “I think occasionally, you know, it would be good if the teachers of each class met with each of their students individually for a mandatory meeting every once and a while, like after two or three units.”
Members of the administration share concerns of isolation amongst students. “My biggest concern is just making sure that we’re establishing a space for [teacher-student] relationships to be built and those supports to be in place, … I feel like we’re really laying those things in a way that will provide consistency … and connection,” Pomeroy said. “We believe that it’s the relationship with the teacher and the support … that’s going to be critical as we move forward, so that contact with our teachers and students is critical to the support of a kid who is working through these online classes,” he said.
A Chaotic First Quarter
While students and teachers alike have done their best to adapt to a new style of learning, the transition to either hybrid or Online Academy has been difficult.
“I feel bad that we put our teachers and our kids in this position. This is not how we wanted to start the school year, by any means, so I feel for that,” Hatton said. Despite this, he is optimistic. “I do think we have amazing teachers who will learn, … and they will adjust to do what’s best for kids.”
The school year may not have begun as expected by the community; however, the administration is confident in its Responsible Restart Plan, which follows guidelines from Franklin County Public Health.
“I think the Responsible Restart was excellent, I mean, Superintendent Dr. Paul Imhoff has us positioned in a way where we are going to follow the science, we’re gonna listen to the science and medical doctors who specialize in this in the Franklin County Public Health Department,” Hatton said.
Learning from past mistakes has been a staple of the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Taking into account both student and parent feedback has been another contributor to the constant changes of the Online Academy program.
“I want to be talking about … ideas being generated by students [in collaboration] with teachers to really enhance [the online learning] experience even more in the midst of this, and I feel like we’re about to turn that corner,” Pomeroy said.