Williamson County Schools committee removes book from elementary curriculum

A Williamson County Schools committee has removed one book from the district's elementary school English language arts curriculum and restricted seven others.

A report distributed to school board members this week and posted publicly online Tuesday details the long-awaited outcome of a review of 31 texts called into question by the Williamson County chapter of Moms for Liberty, a conservative parent advocacy group.

The books in question range from an award-winning juvenile fiction book to works on historical figures that have been taught for decades at WCS. The committee also set teaching requirements for seven books that include:

  • Skipping pages when reading aloud

  • Warning school counselors in advance when a book is being read in classrooms

WCS and the report are clear that these instructional changes to the elementary school curriculum will not impact library books, if librarians currently have or add them to their libraries

"With the one book that (teachers) aren't going to use anymore, that doesn't mean it isn't going to be part of the school," WCS communications director Carol Birdsong said. "It's just not going to be part of the curriculum."

The report makes clear the recommendations only apply to curriculum.

"The conclusions are not intended to apply to classroom libraries, media centers/libraries, or any other location that is not considered core instruction," the report said.

The committee’s recommendations occurred as schools across the nation grapple with increasingly vocal parent concerns about topics taught in the classroom and the role these adults should have in choosing what children are taught.

Read more: What to know about the seven books undergoing 'adjustments' at Williamson County Schools

Committee determines book has 'objectionable content'

The committee removed "Walk Two Moons," a 1994 award-winning juvenile fiction book by Sharon Creech from being taught in the curriculum. The book is about a 13-year-old girl with Native American heritage who deals with the disappearance of her mother through her own "outrageous" storytelling while on a road trip between Ohio and Idaho with her grandparents.

Previously: Here's what to know about the debate over 'Wit & Wisdom' curriculum in Williamson schools

The committee determined although the book supports the curriculum and has "strength and value," it ultimately has "objectionable content."

"The repetitive nature of the emotionally weighted topics throughout the book, the emotional resonation of the text being extremely high, and overall concern with the timing being the end of the school year all give the committee great concern," the committee wrote in a conclusion statement contained in the 114-page report.

The committee stated their decision was not a "value judgment" and they saw the book as having "great merit, however any adjustment to the book's instruction would influence the value and integrity of this book."

Related: Academic gains, new ideas and empathy: What's at stake when the books students can read are restricted

Moms for Liberty's objections included “stick figures hanging, cursing and miscarriage, hysterectomy/stillborn and screaming during labor," group members said during a hearing on the book. In addition, the group in the complaint said the district should:

  • “continue to let children have their innocence."

  • “we are not sending kids to learn about social justice.”

  • Such topics “need to be taught in the home.”

Moms for Liberty chair Robin Steenman on Wednesday shared a statement with The Tennessean.

"The WCS school board, superintendent, and administration have dismissed parents’ concerns and we have no reason to believe that a committee cherry-picked by those same entities would reach any different conclusion," she said. "This outcome is not a victory for parents, children, or their faith in WCS leadership. Let’s be clear: it is a victory for a sub-par publisher with a demonstrated far left political ideology, and that is what’s wrong with public education today."

ELA Reconsideration Conclusion Report 2022 by USA TODAY Network on Scribd

Also on Wednesday, Steenman filed an appeal of Williamson County's decision with the Tennessee Department of Education — under a state law prohibiting specific topics around race and bias from being taught in the classroom.

Parents challenge books, classroom content across the state, country

Last year, Tennessee lawmakers banned certain topics regarding race, implicit bias and LGBTQ issues from being taught in public schools. This legislative session, lawmakers have filed proposed legislation banning additional subject matter.

Curriculum concerns: Debate over racism, critical race theory surrounds Williamson school district

Steenman also filed the first official grievance with the Tennessee Department of Education pursuant to the state’s ban last summer on critical race theory. The complaint was ultimately rejected as it didn’t follow the official grievance process.

State guidance allows current students, parents or staff to file complaints within a set period of time of a teacher or school sharing prohibited content first with the local school district, before appealing to the state.

The books flagged in Williamson County are part of the Wit & Wisdom curriculum published by Great Minds.

“At a time when U.S. elementary reading scores need improvement and reading for fun is less common among kids, the time-tested texts and commonly used materials found in Wit & Wisdom instill a love of the written word, build general knowledge, and prepare young learners for future schooling and careers," Great Minds spokesperson Chad Colby said in an email Tuesday. "We commend the school district’s process to have parents and educators work together to do what is best for students.

"They have our full support in implementing the recommendations of the committee.”

More: Tennessee librarians speak out against Chattanooga school board member's attempt to ban books

More than 30 school districts in Tennessee use the Wit & Wisdom curriculum, and others have heard some concerns as well. Parents in Sumner County called on Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to revoke the district’s approval to use the curriculum last summer and members of the Davidson County chapter of Moms for Liberty have made regular appearances at Metro Nashville school board meetings.

School districts have handled concerns in a variety of ways, with some reminding the public of the curriculum review process, shoring up how librarians select materials for school libraries or forming their own committees, like Williamson County and Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga did.

What's next?

The review committee was comprised of five members, including Williamson County Schools Assistant Superintendent Juli Oyer; Michelle Organ, a PTO representative; Jill Justus, an elementary school principal; Williamson County school board member KC Haugh; and Sharla Bratton, a Williamson County Education Association representative.

Committee members spent more than 60 hours reviewing the instructional materials, including whether each text supported the curriculum, “had strength and value,” and/or had “objectionable content.”

According to board policy, the committee's review and conclusions are final and do not need board approval.

Those filing the initial complaint or any affected school employees have until Feb. 15 to appeal the committee's finding. If no appeal is filed by the deadline, the committee's decision is final.

State guidance allows students, parents or staff who believe the curriculum or lessons include topics prohibited under state law, to appeal to the Tennessee Department of Education — Moms for Liberty had already filed an appeal as of Wednesday afternoon.

Additional restricted books

The initial complaint flagged 31 books and the committee recommended the district continue to use most of them. Seven other books were flagged for use with "instructional adjustments."

Those books include:

  • "Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea by Christine Butterworth"

  • "Feelings" by Aliki

  • "Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation" by Duncan Tonatiuh

  • "Love that Dog" by Sharon Creech

  • "Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen

  • "George v. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides" by Rosalyn Schanzer

  • "The River Between Us" by Richard Peck

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Anika Exum is a reporter covering Williamson County at The Tennessean, part of the USA Today Network — Tennessee. Reach her at aexum@tennessean.com, 615-347-7313 or on Twitter @aniexum.

Meghan Mangrum covers education for the USA TODAY Network — Tennessee. Contact her at mmangrum@tennessean.com. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Williamson County Schools committee removes elementary curriculum book