The controversial distance learning program used by hundreds of Hawaii public schools this year discriminated against protected classes based on race, national origin, gender, religion, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, according to a Hawaii Department of Education review of Acellus Learning Accelerator.

The 140-page report, drafted last month but just posted to the DOE website on Monday, reveals the program violates the state Board of Education’s anti-harassment, anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policy against students by employees.

“Viewed through the lens of BOE Policy 305-10 … the identified discriminatory content rises to the level of being severe, pervasive and persistent,” the report says.

Hilo High School sign reads ‘Learn from home extended October 2’ during COVID-19 surge in cases. September 24, 2020
Many Hawaii public schools used Acellus for remote learning during the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Additionally, the report found Acellus program content promotes religion in the public schools in violation of a BOE policy that prohibits religion in the schools.

The DOE had released a five-page condensed report on Acellus in mid-October but the comprehensive report released this week offers a much fuller and more detailed picture of the extent to which Acellus has featured harmful material to scores of public school students in Hawaii.

Although the full report had been available for more than a month, it’s not clear why the DOE took as long as it did to post the full review. Hawaii Board of Education members were publicly calling for its release as far back as at an Oct. 15 meeting.

Civil Beat had also requested the report on Oct. 19 via the Uniform Information Practices Act. After several follow-up emails, the DOE replied last Thursday by referencing a proclamation by Gov. David Ige that suspended UIPA deadlines due to COVID-19.

At its Oct. 15 meeting, the Board of Education voted to discontinue Acellus by the end of the school year. While some DOE schools have independently chosen to yank the online curriculum from their menu of distance learning tools, other schools are choosing to continue with it so as to prevent further disruption to kids who are distance learning.

Acellus, a long-time credit recovery option in Hawaii schools that expanded in use as a main online learning program this year during the pandemic, has reached 74,405 students across the state, based on the number of student licenses purchased, according to the DOE.

The total cost to the state education department for these licenses was $2.8 million since April.

But once reports from teachers and parents surfaced in late August of lessons featuring racist, sexist and age-inappropriate material, the scrutiny on Acellus only mounted, resulting in its formal condemnation by the Board of Education last month.

The full report offers the first indication of violations against protected classes in Hawaii.

The earlier summary said the 56 members of a DOE content review team scored the program with low marks, saying it featured repetitive tasks with “low cognitive demand.” That report also said there was “evidence of conflict with BOE policies addressing academic program, standards, curriculum, discrimination and religion” but did not elaborate.

In the report posted Monday, it’s clear the problems reach far deeper. The review says if a Hawaii teacher were found to be teaching the same material as Acellus in class, “it would be grounds for an investigation” by the DOE’s Civil Rights Compliance Branch and “would likely result in disciplinary action.”

The full report also provides additional examples of religious material featured in online Acellus lessons, including references to “Jesus of Nazareth,” “Jesus: His Parables and Teaching,” the “Exodus” and “the Crucifixion of Jesus.”

“These units were not contained in a course about religion, nor were these individuals/events treated in an historical context, as is customary in a public school curriculum,” the review states.

The review cites a middle school test question that asks, “Jesus performed miracles (such as laying his hands on the sick),” with the only possible answers as true or false.

“It is the view of this examiner that Acellus presents a curriculum that promotes Christian values and religious material in the public school,” the report states.

It also goes on to say that a review of the social studies curriculum in Acellus “is nothing short of alarming from an equity perspective.”

DOE curriculum specialists were given a limited window of time in May to vet Acellus and evaluated just a handful of the 300 courses across the K-12 online curriculum.

This time, a larger team of specialists, including equity representatives from the civil rights compliance office, completed 84 reviews covering over 50 Acellus courses during a dedicated time period, from Sept. 22 to Oct. 2.

In a statement to Civil Beat Monday, BOE Chairwoman Catherine Payne said it’s evident from the specialists’ review that Acellus is “neither aligned with Common Core nor Hawaii content standards.”

“In addition there are many lessons without rigor or engagement but with highly questionable content,” she said. “The curriculum specialists are now reviewing alternatives that will be worthy of our students as we move forward in improving the option of online learning for our students and families.”

The DOE report advises schools in the meantime to transfer full distance learning students into a teacher-led class or replace Acellus with other online programs. In the long term, the DOE said it was working on coming up with an approval process for curriculum and instructional materials; establishing a process for addressing concerns regarding instructional materials; and developing a process to receive complaints.

The department had created a “controversial content concern form” to field Acellus concerns from parents and teachers and assured the school community in mid-September that it would “work directly with the vendor to address any content deemed inappropriate.”

It appears that the problematic content is being removed incrementally from Acellus — as recently as the last week of October. An appendix attached to the end of the report lists a slew of problematic courses, grade level, lesson titles and Acellus’ timing and response to the issue, such as “10/28 – problem deleted” or “10/26 – lesson removed from course.”

DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said Monday the department ensured Acellus “has removed or addressed all of the concerning content that CRCB identified in its review” and will “continue to ensure any reported objectionable content is removed” throughout the course of the school year.

Read the full report here:

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