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Akron Public Schools approves DEI-focused English curriculum, shares details on $96M stimulus plan

The Akron school board meeting on May 23, 2022.
Akron Public Schools
The Akron school board approved a new English curriculum that focuses on racial equity and diversity during its meeting on Monday, March 23, 2022.

Akron Public Schools unanimously approved new English and language arts curriculum materials Monday that include topics such as racial equity and diversity - at a time when several bills proposed in the Ohio Legislature would limit teaching so-called “divisive concepts.”

One such bill, House Bill 616, would outlaw schools from teaching curriculum that promotes “divisive or inherently racist concepts.”

The new English, language arts and reading textbooks and supplemental materials for Akron students include “Wonders” from McGraw-Hill for kindergarten through second grade; “Into Reading” for grades 3-5 and “Into Literature” for grades 6-12 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH). The materials will cost more than $5.5 million.

According to HMH's web page for “Into Literature,” the curriculum and related resources “celebrate cultural diversity” with “culturally respondent texts.”

School boards routinely review and instate new curriculum after several years to keep up with the state’s learning standards, as well as new priorities in the district.

Akron’s board of education has previously taken steps to prioritize racial equity, including creating an equity subcommittee last year. They also recently passed a resolution disapproving of House Bill 616, the “divisive concepts” bill.

The new curriculum was reviewed by a committee of dozens of staff members from across the school district and other local education partners from October 2021 to March 2022, according to a letter recommending the textbooks to the board. The committee reviewed instructional materials from 10 publishers before recommending the content from McGraw-Hill and HMH.

The textbooks adhere to the state’s learning standards and guidelines from the district, according to the letter.

In addition to hard copies of the reading materials, students will also get digital access.

Before the vote Monday night, several board members expressed concern that not enough physical textbooks would be ordered. Teachers had anonymously shared that many students come to class without their laptops, or experience eye strain from looking at a screen all day, they said.

A learning specialist clarified that elementary classrooms, where that concern was most prominent, would get a full set of books.

In the meeting, the board also heard a presentation from Assistant Superintendent Ellen McWilliams-Woods on how the district plans to spend $96 million in federal COVID-19 stimulus funds.

The money is set to be allocated to 10 strategy areas, targeting issues such as hiring more teachers, reducing class sizes and providing more tutoring and coaching for students, McWilliams-Woods said.

"This is a funding opportunity to deepen the work that we have planned in this district. This is not an opportunity to go off and do 500 different strategies than what our district focus has already been around,” McWilliams-Woods said.

Other priorities include supporting refugee and multi-lingual students and families, safety and security, expanding broadband and technology, and professional development for educators, she said.

Many Akron teachers attended the board meeting, and several spoke during the public comment period calling for more transparency about how the allocations were decided.

Ann Merendino, a teacher in the district, noted that community members and teachers were asked to fill out a survey giving input back in October, but only 1,359 responded to the call to participate. According to a 2020 U.S. Census estimate, 196,000 people live in the city.

“I believe there’s been an existence of authentic collaboration with those employees who work with our students on a daily basis,” she said. “My question to you would be – when do we see discussion, collaboration and engagement with those at the foundational level in our district?”

After McWilliams-Woods’ presentation, several board members asked whether people could continue to give feedback after seeing the official priorities.

McWilliams-Woods clarified that the proposed budget is a planning document and will be adjusted accordingly as it is rolled out over the next several years.

The team that is working on the stimulus document will continue to ask for feedback from staff and the community, she added.

The funds must be spent by September 2024.

The board also approved the district’s financial five-year forecast, which must be submitted to the state by the end of May.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.