Indoctrination concerns prompt West Bonner trustees to yank curriculum

The West Bonner School District’s Board of Trustees revoked its approval of the district’s English language arts curriculum in a 3-1 vote last week, after accusations that its social emotional learning (SEL) component would lead to liberal indoctrination, sexual grooming and critical race theory.

At least 23 teachers, parents, grandparents and other community members testified at the meeting. A slim majority urged the board to keep the curriculum, which it originally approved with a unanimous vote at a June 15 meeting. Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, encouraged community members to oppose the curriculum, but did not show at the meeting.

Alongside indoctrination concerns, some opponents also testified against using federally granted emergency relief (ESSER) funds on the curriculum, because doing so would tie the district to the federal government. The curriculum would have cost more than the budget allocated, so the board planned to use ESSER funds to make up the difference. District officials did not disclose a dollar amount.

Shipping and returning the curriculum materials will cost West Bonner about $20,000, according to the distribution company’s textbook manager Darin Alvaro.

When school starts on Sept. 6, educators will have to fall back on last year’s curriculum, portions of which have expired or been discontinued. Approving a new curriculum could take months, and Superintendent Jackie Branum said finding materials that don’t mention SEL will be almost impossible. 

Revoked curriculum includes optional social emotional activities

The indoctrination concerns largely stemmed from SEL components in the K-5 curriculum, Wonders, and the 6-12 curriculum, StudySync. Using this ELA curriculum was approved after a three-month, state-sanctioned process, which included building a committee of local educators and community representatives, getting feedback from teachers and hosting an open house for community members to learn about the curriculum, according to Nick Ivie of the River Valley Beacon

The SEL component was added to Wonders in 2020 after McGraw Hill collaborated with the Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces the children’s television show “Sesame Street.” The intent of adding SEL was to support students’ social problem-solving skills, task persistence, empathy and emotional and behavioral self-regulation, according to McGraw Hill’s website. 

The McGraw Hill website includes an example of the optional social emotional learning lessons found in the Wonders curriculum.

The SEL component is optional for both Wonders and StudySync and ultimately gives teachers control over their lessons. 

The social-emotional content of both programs … can be omitted based on the discretion of the teacher or district … without affecting the thorough coverage of the English Language Arts instruction provided within and across the grades,” said Cathy McManus, vice president of marketing and communications at McGraw Hill.

This was conveyed to West Bonner trustees by local McGraw Hill representative Craig Osborne, alongside a committee of national representatives who attended virtually.

After around five minutes of deliberation, the board rescinded the curriculum — with only board chairwoman Margaret Hall voting no.

The district will now form another curriculum committee, and complete the lengthy selection process again.

Superintendent Branum said finding a curriculum that doesn’t mention SEL is almost impossible. “With the onset of COVID and the mental health issues that have skyrocketed amongst our youth, including suicide, publishers are profiting from adding this content.”

In the meantime, the district will fall back on the curriculum it has used for the past eight years, but it faces obstacles. The student workbooks for the curriculum are no longer sold, and the district cannot access a portion of online materials due to expired licensing.

State representative encouraged pushback, others showed up in support

Scott encouraged community members via Facebook to show up at the meeting. Scott has represented the North Idaho district that includes Bonner County since 2014, and is unopposed for reelection in November.

In her Facebook post, Scott linked to an article from a national conservative think tank, which described SEL as the gateway into “radicalized propaganda.”

Scott did not attend last Wednesday’s board meeting. But at least 11 others showed up with similar arguments – primarily that SEL is a lead-in to liberal indoctrination, sexual grooming and critical race theory, another political flashpoint in far-right circles. Some also voiced concerns about the district’s plan to use ESSER funds to buy part of the curriculum. They claimed this would create ties with the federal government – something they don’t want to happen. 

Others, including trustee Susan Brown, were upset that the McGraw Hill representatives could not relay the curriculum’s efficacy data. Osborne from McGraw Hill confirmed with the district prior to the meeting that the efficacy data was not required. 

Some who were opposed to the curriculum suggested the district use another in its place, offering up a curriculum developed by the Michigan-based conservative, private liberal arts school Hillsdale College. The Hillsdale curriculum is not listed on the Idaho State Department of Education’s list of approved curricular materials.

At least 12 spoke at the meeting in support of keeping the curriculum, including Whitney Urmann, a graduate of the West Bonner district and a second-grade teacher at Priest River Elementary School. 

During Urmann’s public comment, she listed examples of her experiences growing up in the district. She described how her first-grade teacher held her hand while the class watched the planes crash into the World Trade Center on 9/11, and explained how her third-grade teacher taught her multiplication through music. 

“Everything I just described is social emotional learning,” she said. “It is the foundation to an amazing education.” 

Four other district educators and two former educators also testified in support of retaining the curriculum.

District mom Melissa Kuprienko was asked to attend the meeting both by friends who were against the curriculum and those who wanted to keep it. During her public comment, she told the board that she didn’t have enough knowledge to make a judgment on the curriculum itself, but said she trusts district educators to teach her kids.

Kuprienko told EdNews that she is now considering pulling her son from the district because he struggles with reading and writing, and she fears the impact of removing the ELA curriculum will harm him academically and emotionally. Kuprienko also expressed her concern that teachers will start leaving the district. 

“It’s mind-blowing and mortifying,” she said. “I’m terrified.”

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Reporter Sadie Dittenber focuses on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley. You can follow Sadie on Twitter @sadiedittenber and send her news tips at [email protected].

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