At least three Oahu public elementary schools as of Monday evening had abruptly quit using an online program for students learning remotely, with one principal calling out its “inappropriate and racist content” in a letter explaining her decision to families.

Acellus Learning Accelerator is a self-paced program used by elementary and secondary students in public schools in Hawaii and other states. Its founder, Roger Billings, is a self-described “science and technology innovator” who has professed to inventing the first hydrogen car and personal computer, among other unsubstantiated claims.

Over the last week, furious parents have posted screenshots and video clips on social media that reveal troublesome and disturbing content in online lessons, particularly at the elementary school level.

King David Kalakaua Middle school distance learning sign on the front of their campus during COVID-19 pandemic. August 24, 2020
Distance learning is in effect for all Hawaii DOE schools until at least Sept. 14. Just under half of the department’s 257 schools use Acellus; others use Google Classroom or other programs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

One lesson for first graders shows an Acellus instructor pulling out a gun from a box to demonstrate the sound of the letter G. “Ooh it’s a gun!” the woman exclaims. “It’s a good thing it’s got this orange thing telling us that it’s a toy, right?”

Another animated video shows a bear and duck, posing as school kids, asking a classmate, who’s a pig in makeup, “Sweetie Lips! Where did you get that name?” “Don’t ask, we’re not even going there,” the pig replies, her cheeks turning a rosy blush.

For older students, under a question, “Osama Bin Laden was the leader of what terrorist group?” one of the multiple choice answers includes “Towelban.” And the examples continue, including a disparaging question and answer about Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery, detailed in this Twitter thread.

In a letter sent to families Sunday, posted on the school website, Aliamanu Elementary principal Sandra Yoshimi wrote that the school would immediately cancel all student accounts with Acellus.

“This is due to reports of controversial content that span across course subjects and grade levels,” she wrote. “The safety of our students will remain our first priority and we will not take any chances by allowing students further access to this program.”

Her letter says the school chose Acellus based on “the recommendation of curriculum specialists as well as the fact that Acellus is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).

“However, based on the inappropriate and racist content Aliamanu Elementary School feels that this curriculum is unsafe for our students and does not align to the values in our mission and vision statement.”

By Monday evening, at least two other elementary schools had yanked the program — Nimitz Elementary and Hickam Elementary. Hickam said in a notice that over the weekend “parents voiced several concerns about the appropriateness and rigor of the curriculum within Acellus.”

“Based on the inappropriate and racist content Aliamanu Elementary School feels that this curriculum is unsafe for our students.” — Principal Sandra Yoshimi

Among Hawaii’s 257 DOE schools, 121 schools are currently using Acellus Learning Accelerator for distance learning, according to the department.

The Hawaii Department of Education approved Acellus earlier this summer as an option for families who wanted full distance learning for their children rather than send them back into the classroom in the midst of the pandemic.

This was before the DOE decided to pivot to all-distance learning for at least the first four weeks of the new school year. As a result, some families who had chosen the all-distance model when their schools were offering an in-person or hybrid model have effectively been locked into the Acellus plan for the entire quarter, ending Oct. 2, or in some cases longer than that.

“We understood that going in,” said Cassie Favreau-Chung, whose son is in ninth grade at Mililani High. “But until you get the log-in credentials and go in and see the program, it’s a very different situation.”

Favreau-Chung said her high schooler’s Acellus program is “very remedial.” She said the videos are very old and look like they could have been made in the ’90s.

“It just seems very slow-paced,” she said, adding her son can finish an entire week’s worth of one class curriculum in just a couple of hours — or for all classes, in an entire day.

“It just doesn’t seem complete,” she said. The lessons are delivered in “bite-sized video clips” with no writing exercises and just multiple-choice questions, she said.

Moreover, the high school component includes Roger Billings’ personal blog, according to Favreau-Chung.

On Friday, Hickam Elementary parent Heather Moselle started a petition calling on the DOE to sever its ties with Acellus. As of Monday evening, the petition had collected nearly 1,500 signatures.

The company’s founder seems aware of the controversy unfolding in Hawaii: he posted a video in his own defense Monday, which has since been removed, telling people not to believe the claims about him.

The DOE did not immediately respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment on certain schools’ decisions to cancel their student Acellus accounts.

Yoshimi did not reply to messages seeking comment.

Roger Billings, the founder of Acellus, defended himself and his program in a video aimed at defusing the Hawaii criticism. Screenshot

The online program has been raised in the pages of angry and concerned written testimony to the Board of Education and was discussed at Thursday’s 6.5-hour meeting with school officials.

Board member Lynn Fallin asked DOE Assistant Superintendent Alicia Bender, who oversees curriculum and instructional design, how the DOE vetted Acellus and what criteria it considered in approving its content.

Bender replied that DOE has been using the Acellus Learning Accelerator for the past 10 years, including as a credit recovery program over the summer.

She said no concerns had been raised before about the program and it wasn’t until an “August negative social media campaign” that the issue came to the DOE’s attention.

When Fallin raised the issue of “problematic” content outlined in testimony, Bender said the DOE had reached out to an Acellus representative, who she said attributed such claims to a competitor and were not substantiated.

Bender, who was not available for an interview Monday, said at the meeting Acellus “fulfills a right-now need” and that DOE “will continue to use it as a distance learning instructional solution.”

The program has already reached thousands of summer school students: 9,040 student licenses were purchased at $25 per license — a discounted price, according to an April 22 DOE memo — for a total cost of $226,000, according to DOE.

For the 2020-21 school year, DOE communications director Nanea Kalani said schools are working directly with Acellus to secure licenses.

She did not provide an exact number of accounts purchased or total cost to the DOE but said Acellus has “provided different cost models based on school needs and availability.”

Kalani added that in addition to Acellus, there are other online platforms available for schools and that some elementary schools are piloting content from Arizona State University Prep Digital.

She said Acellus has been used by DOE schools “in different capacities over the past decade.”

“It’s been utilized effectively in a range of settings from fully self-contained classes to AP classes,” she said via email.

For summer school, DOE purchased 9,040 student licenses at $25 each for a total cost of $226,000, according to DOE.

DOE schools are currently in all-distance learning mode until at least Sept. 14. The DOE, which has made a series of last-minute decisions around school start dates and the way classes would resume, said it will decide by Sept. 8 whether it’s safe for students to return to classrooms.

But the way decisions have been rolled out has created a two-track learning program. Acellus is not facilitated by Hawaii teachers; they will only intervene if the student is appearing to falter or fall too far behind in the self-guided course.

Many Hawaii teachers are utilizing Google Classroom to develop their own curriculum and teach their students via remote learning, but they have no daily communication with the Acellus kids.

Favreau-Chung, the Mililani parent, said one of the worst parts about the program is there is no live teacher connected to it.

She does not blame her son’s school for extending this option, saying they were forced to give parents the option that was available at the time that had been approved by the DOE administration.

She said she plans to supplement her 9th-grader’s learning in the meantime with other materials.

“I’m worried he won’t be prepared when it is time to go back to school and join everyone else,” she said. “I feel these kids will be left behind.”

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