School Department continues to support controversial curriculum despite charges of racial insensitivity

MALDEN, MA October 2, 2023- 2021 Massachusetts Teacher of the year and Malden parent Jennifer Hedrington speaks out against the Amplify curriculum at October’s Monthly school committee meeting. Photo via Malden Access TV.

By Avieana Rivera

The Malden School Committee and superintendent continued to support the district’s new curriculum at their November meeting, despite charges from parents and teachers that it is racially insensitive.

Seven different educators, all members of the Malden Education Association (MEA), along with two concerned parents, spoke out against the Amplify curriculum at October’s monthly school committee meeting, which they claimed is racially insensitive and a potential civil rights violation for English language learners.

Amplify ELA (English/Language Arts) is a national-for-profit curriculum and was purchased by the Malden School District for all students in grades Pre-K through 8.

They said one of the more disturbing lessons for 8th graders included a passage written by 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass where he quotes a slave master using the N-word four times to express his displeasure of slaves being taught to read and write.

“I did everything I could to prepare my students for what they were going to read. Nothing prepared me for the gasps, the looks on their faces when they saw the illustrations. When they saw the N-word being used over and over again. The deep sighs of frustration and watery eyes broke my heart,” said Shannon Dellasanta, an 8th grade English teacher at the Salemwood School.

Dellasanta, along with the other educators, noted that they’re not opposed to exposing students to these parts of history, but according to the educators, this national for-profit curriculum relies solely on excerpts from different texts when teaching students. Multiple educators claim that these excerpts are not only taken out of context, but also often racially and culturally insensitive, and generally not age appropriate.

“The Amplify curriculum doesn’t actually allow students to ever complete an entire book,” said Malden Teachers Union President Deb Gesualdo. The excerpts, Gesualdo added, are “taken completely out of context for the mere purpose of cranking out testing machines.”

MALDEN, MA October 2, 2023- Malden Education Association President Deb Gesualdo speaks out against the Amplify curriculum at October’s Monthly school committee meeting. Photo via Malden Access TV

In an interview after the October meeting, Gesualdo said these issues are affecting even the teachers of the youngest students, and that in Amplify’s fourth grade curriculum, students are being exposed to textual content containing nudity and mentions of sexual assault.

At November’s meeting School Superintendent Ligia Noriega-Murphy explained the process of how the Amplify curriculum was chosen and why, as part of her Superintendent’s Report.

She said the curriculum was vetted by a group of educators and came at a time when there was no consistency in teaching throughout the district.

“We want to make sure and ensure that every single student has access to consistent, grade level, standard base, high quality curriculum with high quality materials and high quality instruction,” said Noriega-Murphy.

She then informed educators that the district will be sticking with Amplify, and that extra support will be provided to teachers during this transition period.

Above, Ligia Noriega-Murphy, Malden School Superintendent. Photo from Malden Public Schools website.

Although the curriculum is meant to provide the district with measurable progress, teachers complain they are not allowed to alter or modify it in anyway, stripping them of using their own judgement in determining what’s best for their students.

“When ELL [English Language Learner] teachers around the district are directed to only teach the Amplify curriculum and not supplement for newcomers, we are depriving Multilingual Learners of meaningful opportunities to develop and acquire language,” said Jessica Gold Boots, vice president of the MEA at the October school committee meeting.

Malden Mayor Gary Christenson (center) with 2022-23 Malden School Committee members. Left to right: Rob McCarthy (Ward 2), Adam Weldai (Ward 5), Dawn Macklin (Ward 4), Sharyn Rose-Zeiberg (Ward 8), Jennifer Spadafora (Ward 3), Joseph Gray (Ward 6), Michael Drummey (Ward 1), and Keith Bernard (Ward 7). Photo from City of Malden website.

Students who require specialized instruction are legally required to be provided with modified and/or accessible learning materials under the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Boston Public Schools were found in violation of these laws in 2010 and some worry that Malden may also be found in violation if the situation isn’t rectified quickly.

Gold Boots also worked as a CURATE panelist for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Learning during the 2020-2021 School year and was asked to rate Amplify, among other curricula. She claims that while the curriculum received high marks in rigor, the panelists universally decided that it needs improvement when rating Amplify for issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

This is especially problematic in a district like Malden, where more than 50% of the students identify as people of color.

Malden parent Jamaal Hedrington claimed, as did many other educators, that these concerns had been brought to the district multiple times, and were often ignored.

The school superintendent did send out an email to 8th grade families saying, “While we understand that this unit exposes students to heavy content, we also believe that violence, oppression, and insulting language is something that our ‘Black, Indigenous, People of Color’ (BIPOC) students have heard and/or experience personally and/or have heard first-hand accounts from their parents or grandparents.” The email goes on to say, “Our students are living the ramifications of slavery. In a district like Malden with over 50% BIPOC students, we have a professional responsibility to cover the standards and a moral/ethical responsibility to contextualize what they already know, feel, have experienced, or will experience. We don’t erase the ugly parts of our history, we teach them to learn from them in hopes that they don’t repeat themselves.”

According to Gesualdo, the key to solving this issue lies within teacher’s autonomy. She believes that this issue could be settled if the school committee and superintendent allowed teachers to exercise their professional judgement as experts in their fields to make modifications for students who are on Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and English Language Learners.

“Allowing teachers to be teachers would be a huge step forward,” she said.

Avieana Rivera is a journalism student at Emerson College. Her work appears here as part of a collaborative partnership between the “Beat Reporting Across the Media” class taught by Mark Micheli at Emerson College and the Neighborhood View editorial staff.

Corrections Note: This story was published at 6:10 AM on 12-13-24 with an incorrect byline. The byline was corrected at 10:00 AM on 12-13-24.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply