The Hawaii Board of Education unanimously voted Thursday to discontinue use of Acellus Learning Accelerator by the end of the school year.

The vote came after a series of testy exchanges between board members and school Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, who defended the Department of Education’s process for adopting a distance curriculum that by many accounts features racist, sexist, age-inappropriate and culturally insensitive content.

“There was never anything rushed about this beyond the rush of the pandemic and trying to do multiple decisions (at once),” the superintendent said, adding the department “did not sit on (its) hands on this at all” once concerns came to light.

Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto.
Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto issued a letter of apology to parents this week for the disruption the Acellus program has caused to families. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The DOE approved Acellus this summer as an option for families who wanted their children to learn virtually because of the pandemic. However, the DOE has used Acellus — which is owned by a Missouri-based nonprofit, International Academy of Science — in a limited capacity for 10 years.

The vote came the same day the DOE released a report that said most members of a content review team did not recommend using Acellus after a recent review of its lessons. Three-quarters of the K-12 courses reviewed garnered weak scores from the team.

The review team, which included 56 DOE specialists in areas like special education, English language learning, Hawaiian education and civil rights compliance, completed 84 reviews of more than 50 Acellus courses from Sept. 22 to Oct. 2.

Reviewers found evidence that corroborated many parents’ concerns that Acellus content was problematic and that it didn’t align with Board of Education policies or state academic standards.

The reviewers noted many lessons had repetitive tasks “with a low cognitive demand.”

The review also said Acellus was selected based on curriculum availability, cost, implementation timeline, teacher familiarity with the program, and consultation with schools already using it.

“A key consideration was to minimize any burden of introducing brand new materials and programs given all of the other adjustments teachers and principals were handling at the time,” the report states.

Molokai High School Administration Building.
Molokai High School Principal Katina Soares urged the DOE to allow the school to continue using Acellus this school year and beyond, saying it cost a “huge chunk” of the school’s Title I funding. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

DOE curriculum specialists conducted a review of Acellus in May, but only had the chance to review a limited number of lessons during a condensed 10-day period. Nonetheless, they gave the program poor marks, yet the DOE approved the curriculum anyway for use in the summer and this school year.

“This should not have taken this long, and should not have required board action, period,” Board Member Bruce Voss told the superintendent during the meeting, about canceling the program.

Just because the board voted to discontinue Acellus, however, doesn’t mean it disappears immediately.

In letters to the BOE, some school principals and parents said they depended on the platform and praised it, saying children are learning from it and getting more out of the lessons than they were in classrooms before the pandemic.

“Our school has not had this variety of courses for many years,” Molokai High principal Katina Soares wrote in a letter of testimony. “We have not only invested significant school-level money in this program, but time in training parents, students, and staff to access this program.”

Just under half of the department’s 257 schools use Acellus; others use Google Classroom or other programs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Roughly 80,000 Hawaii public school students across 188 schools are using Acellus. The cost per student license ranges from $25 to $100.

Some schools have spent thousands of dollars on Acellus licenses, only to see parents frustrated with the program request a different learning model.

Paige Kemerer, a third-grade teacher at Kapaa Elementary, wrote in a letter that she had to stop using the program with her students after only three weeks. “A curriculum should never harm students and I fear Acellus does,” she wrote.

Sunset Elementary principal Eliza Elkington said her school has spent roughly $16,000 for roughly 400 student licenses and has been refused even a partial refund by the company, even as most of the lower grades have discontinued use of the program.

“I cannot tell you how much conflict Acellus has caused among our parents, our teachers, and even our students,” she said in testimony. “It has been devastating for me to navigate as a brand new principal.”

Where DOE schools go from here will largely depend on how equipped schools are to bring Acellus students back into the regular, virtual classroom or find alternative programs to either replace or supplement the program.

Acellus has been in place in the DOE for the last decade as a credit recovery tool for struggling students, but it had not been utilized to such a widespread degree until this school year as schools moved to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Navy Capt. Lyn Yatko, the BOE’s military liaison, said she was dismayed by the length of that relationship and what it implies about the quality of education students have received in the past.

“It’s sad to think that for perhaps 10 years, we’ve had students who’ve been exposed to this, been in a position where they want to pass a class, and have bulldozed through this experience to get the credit and maybe didn’t have a voice for this type of feedback,” she said.

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