The state Department of Education says it needs hard evidence of inappropriate content on a controversial distance learning platform flagged by Hawaii parents before it decides whether to get rid of the program.

The DOE is asking parents and teachers who come across problematic content on Acellus Learning Accelerator to submit a link or attach a file of such content via a Google form.

Instructions on the “HIDOE Controversial Content Concern Form” do not say what happens after a submission is entered, such as who on the DOE end is reviewing the submission or what might warrant a certain level of response.

DOE Dept of Education adminstrators during joint house/senate hearing at the Capitol.
DOE Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami, second from left, said DOE specialists need to verify concerns Hawaii parents have reported concerning Acellus Learning Accelerator before taking further action. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

But in an interview Friday, DOE’s second-in-command described an internal process that enlists DOE “equity specialists” to review Acellus screenshots and video clips taken by Hawaii parents, many of which have been shared across social media and other channels over the last month.

DOE Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said the department needs “evidence to substantiate the concern” and to confirm that what parents are reporting is in the Hawaii curriculum and not based off a general internet search.

“A screenshot as you know can sometimes be old or tampered. If we know the spot the person tells us it’s in, it really helps us a lot,” she said.

“If it’s an error that can easily be fixed, we’re asking the vendor to fix it. If it’s problematic across the curriculum, then we have a bigger decision to make,” she added.

Hawaii’s public school system, run as a single school district, has resisted efforts to nix Acellus as a distance learning option despite parents’ concerns that video-based lessons by Acellus instructors and multiple choice quiz questions, particularly in the area of social studies and social emotional development for younger kids, are racist, sexist and age inappropriate.

In other places, from California to Delaware, school districts have decided to pull the program altogether based on similar parent concerns.

In Hawaii, some individual school principals have decided to cancel the program in their schools or allow families who chose to go with a full distance learning option to rejoin the teacher’s remote-led classroom.

Acellus Learning Accelerator is being used by 188 DOE schools, for a total reach of nearly 80,000 students — more than half of whom are in elementary grades. The platform offers 300 courses in every core content area for grades K-12.

Acellus has been used largely as credit recovery for struggling high schoolers over the last decade in Hawaii. But it’s unclear how Learning Accelerator had come onto DOE’s radar as a viable option for scores of elementary school students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unebasami said she is still trying to find that out. She said over the summer, three distance learning options were presented to school and complex area leaders: Acellus, Florida Virtual Schools and Arizona State University Prep Digital.

DOE curriculum specialists were given 10 days in May to review up to two Acellus courses in math, social studies, language arts and reading and science. Even within that limited time span, the specialists issued scathing reviews of Acellus, calling it “very, very questionable” and “very simple.”

Nonetheless, the DOE presented Acellus as a main distance learning option to school leaders before the start of the new school year, which was originally Aug. 4 but got pushed to Aug. 17 to allow more online teacher training and preparation.

Unebasami said she did not know why the DOE chose to move forward with Acellus.

“I don’t have an answer for you today,” she said Friday. “I am looking into it.”

Some Hawaii schools are using Acellus exclusively for all students during distance learning, which is in effect for the entire first quarter ending Oct. 2, due to a spike in coronavirus cases across the state.

Unebasami said the DOE had a limited window of time in which to research and open up remote learning platforms to families who wanted full distance learning rather than choose a blended or hybrid learning model, which would have required students to go to campus part of the time.

“Given that shortness of time, we weren’t able to do that thorough a review,” Unebasami said. “But there was a review. Anytime we look at instructional materials, it never quite is a perfect fit for everything that we value in Hawaii, especially if it’s coming from another part of the world.”

Acellus was a fast and cheap option: its own founder, Roger Billings, of the Missouri-based parent organization, International Academy of Science, has touted via his Facebook page the affordability of the platform, whose per-student license has been offered for as low as $25.

Still, surging business from school districts — the company professes to reach up to 6,000 schools nationwide — has made International Academy of Science a profitable juggernaut in the area of educational tech in recent years, according to its 990 tax forms.

The DOE does not have the total amount schools spent purchasing Acellus licenses this school year, but said the cost of licenses ranged from $35 to $100 per student, which allows for students to take up to six courses in a quarter or semester.

Culturally Offensive Questions Surface

The DOE’s latest response to the Acellus controversy comes amid new reports of culturally inappropriate content shared by Hawaii parents in recent days.

Two weeks ago, Karine DeLima’s 8-year-old son, a third-grader at Waikiki Elementary, showed her a question that flashed on his screen as he worked through a social studies unit on Asia.

DOE, Acellus, education, distance learning
Karine DeLima said she was “appalled” by this question, captured in a screenshot, that her third-grade son came across on Acellus during a social studies unit on Asia. Courtesy: Karine DeLima

“If Lee is from the country of China, what kind of food might he really like?” said the prompt.

The multiple choice options included “pie,” “seafood” and “burger,” with a picture of a platter of sushi and pair of chopsticks illustrating the choice for “seafood.”

“I was just appalled,” DeLima said, adding she immediately sat her son down for a conversation.

“He had a best friend from South Korea. He said, ‘He liked ice cream and butter!’ We talked about how even though someone was from that country, it doesn’t mean they only like that food from that country,” she said.

In another screenshot shared widely on social media, an Acellus lesson states Hawaii “is a group of islands in the Pacific that was discovered by European’s (sic) in 1778.” It compresses centuries of complex Hawaii history into a few brief statements, including that following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, “the Hawaiians were interested in becoming a state.”

The slide also misspells the name of Queen Liliuokalani as “Liliukalani.”

Mark Mauikanehoalani Lovell, who teaches Hawaiiana at Palolo Elementary, posted a short video to his Instagram account of the corresponding Acellus lesson that he recorded from a fellow teacher’s account. The video has since received more than 40,000 views.

“Hawaiians have been struggling for equal representation since we were overthrown,” he said. “For us to be mischaracterized to the rest of the country is just the most offensive part. My entire being finds (Acellus’) presence in our school system repulsive.”

DOE, Acellus, distance learning
A Hawaii parent took a screenshot of this sample question posed to her seventh-grader on Acellus. Courtesy: Adrienne Robillard

In another screenshot shared with Civil Beat, a multiple choice question that popped up for a Hawaii seventh grader asked for “the names of the four islands that make up Japan.”

Among the incorrect multiple choice answers provided were: “Honolulu, Hickok, Achoo and Bleshu” and “Shiatsu, Sushi, Haiku, and Kimono.”

One of the hurdles to documenting problematic Acellus content is that the video lessons are not easily replayed. So if a student, without parental supervision, completes a unit start to end, an adult cannot go back in and capture the material, unless they catch it in real time.

The way in which DOE has handled the situation over Acellus has spurred even supporters of the school superintendent, Christina Kishimoto, to berate state leadership over its tepid response.

In an Aug. 30 Facebook post, state Rep. Amy Perruso, a former social studies teacher, expressed her frustration with DOE leadership.

“We need leaders who are willing to admit that they made mistakes, when they take shortcuts and bungle decision-making,” she wrote.

Where DOE Goes From Here

Unebasami said some schools have mitigated parents’ concerns with Acellus by screening the content, blocking what’s offensive and retaining the information that is useful. Schools are “not using it wholesale” but as supplementary material, she said.

She added that the DOE has also heard requests from some schools and principals to keep Acellus, because to pull the plug now would be “disruptive to what they’re starting to accomplish.”

Still, she said the DOE is encouraging school principals to incorporate the full-distance kids back into their remote-led classrooms.

But if and when DOE schools return to a hybrid learning model this school year, families who’ve been allowed to rejoin the remote classroom must also agree to stick to the hybrid model, which calls for bringing students back into the physical school part of the week.

“We’re saying, if the parent chooses to do the return to school model that the school has articulated, they stay with it for the remainder of the year,” she said.

The Hawaii Board of Education will take up the issue at its next meeting on Thursday. A public agenda document posted Friday indicates the DOE will complete “a comprehensive review” of Acellus Learning Accelerator before the second quarter of school begins on Oct. 12.

Unebasami said she was just given an Acellus account Thursday evening to go in and take a look for herself.

She acknowledged there are “conversations that need to be had, in terms of can we mitigate some of this” and that includes how the DOE can better support schools. She said one of the options could be to take a look at other platforms and replace Acellus, which she called “temporary.”

“We always want what’s best for our kids and we strive to get it,” she said.

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