Acellus Learning Accelerator, the controversial distance learning platform relied upon by many Hawaii public schools during this period of remote learning, will likely be eliminated by the end of the school year, according to state Board of Education documents released Friday.

“Acellus will be discontinued. Schools may phase out the program by the end of the 2020-21 school year,” says a memo from BOE Chairwoman Catherine Payne to the rest of the board.

The memo adds that families who are currently relying on Acellus while their kids are out of the classroom be “allowed to switch to another learning option immediately.”

Department of Education Board Chair Catherine Payne speaks during meeting.
Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne recommends the board vote to discontinue Acellus by the end of the school year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Although the memo is technically a proposal that will be voted upon by the full board when it meets Thursday, Payne said in an interview Friday the Department of Education is fully aware of the board’s recommendation and had raised no objection.

“The DOE knows what I’m doing,” she said.

The board’s recommendation for the DOE to completely drop Acellus by the end of the school year as a distance learning option or credit recovery option marks a stark turn of events in the continuing saga over the problematic curriculum.

Previously, the DOE said it would leave it up to individual school principals to decide whether to continue with Acellus Learning Accelerator, a curriculum packaged by the Missouri-based nonprofit International Academy of Science, founded by Roger Billings, who has pushed back against the criticism in pleading Facebook videos and other messages to supporters.

The first Hawaii schools to yank Acellus as a distance learning program did so back in late August, condemning the program for featuring racist imagery, age-inappropriate content and culturally insensitive lessons.

Offensive content included a multiple choice option of “Towelban” in a question referencing Osama bin Laden; a video where an instructor pulls a toy gun out of a box to demonstrate the sound of the letter “g”; plus a range of other questions generalizing other cultures or glossing over Hawaii’s history.

Acellus Learning Accelerator contains a suite of 300 courses in core content areas like science, math, language arts and social studies for grades K-12.

Despite the growing amount of negative attention on Acellus as Hawaii parents came forward to report inappropriate content, the DOE refused to pull the program altogether — although several school districts around the U.S. chose to do so.

Instead, the DOE asked parents to fill out a form so their complaints could be vetted and said it would “work directly with the vendor” to address or scrub any inappropriate content.

Some Hawaii families said they were “locked” into using Acellus back in July as part of a pact with their kids’ schools to choose  and stick to an alternative to in-person learning. Right now, almost all DOE schools are in distance learning format.

When the board pressed DOE about Acellus, education officials assured the board they would conduct a “comprehensive review” of the platform before the second quarter of the school year, which begins Monday.

Payne’s memo refers to the DOE’s “draft findings” from the Office of Curriculum and Instructional Design — which also gave poor reviews of Acellus back in May — and the Civil Rights Compliance Branch, but it does not go into further detail about what those reviews entailed.

It also says the DOE is finalizing a comprehensive review process for other outside curriculum for schools to use moving forward.

“Focusing on this positive outcome, I would like the Department to move forward with its improved vetting process and move on from Acellus and all of the problems it has caused for families and schools,” the memo states.

Additionally, Payne writes that it behooves school Superintendent Christina Kishimoto to acknowledge that “the selection of Acellus was a mistake made in the midst of chaos brought on by the pandemic but a mistake nonetheless.”

“It is a mistake that the Department has learned from, and a mistake that it should now remedy,” she wrote.

In a statement Friday, DOE deputy superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said concerns raised around Acellus “warrant action by the Department.”

“We are working to move forward in a manner that supports our students in the least disruptive manner possible,” she said.

Acellus is currently being used by an estimated 80,000 Hawaii public school students. The cost of one user license has ranged from $25 to $100 per student.

While the platform is a relative newcomer for online curriculum this school year, the Hawaii DOE has been using Acellus for credit recovery for high school students for the past decade.

Payne said it’s not realistic to expect all DOE schools to drop Acellus immediately, since there is little funding to purchase another online curriculum at this stage of the school year and many distance learning families could still be relying on this program to chug through the year.

“If parents want their kids out now, schools will have to accommodate that,” she said. “If they need to continue for the rest of the year, I’m recommending we allow them to do that, but it has to drop dead at the end of the school year.”

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