AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – For more than an hour during Monday’s regular meeting of the Amarillo Independent School District’s Board of Trustees, the board heard from more than 30 community members regarding the recent implementation of the Amplify Texas Literacy Program at the majority of the district’s elementary campuses.
During the meeting, some parents and educators criticized the new curriculum, saying that some of its content did not meet their moral standards and is ultimately a “detrimental choice” for the district. Other parents and educators praised Amplify Texas, stating that while it is rigorous, they are seeing the positive impact of the curriculum on both the students and the teachers.
What is the Amplify Texas Elementary Literacy Program?
According to the Texas Education Agency’s website, the Amplify Texas Elementary Literacy Program is built on the “Science of Reading,” comprising skills units from Kindergarten through Second Grade and knowledge domains from Kindergarten through Fifth Grade.
Jessica Cardenas, the assistant superintendent for elementary schools at Amarillo ISD, said that Amplify Texas is a knowledge-building curriculum following the science of teaching reading concepts, a shift that has been made throughout the state.
Through this curriculum, according to documents from Amplify Texas, teachers lay the foundation of strong reading skills, providing knowledge and context with relevant and challenging texts.
Students make connections on various subjects that build over the various grade levels, according to the curriculum. For example, students would learn about frontier explorers in the first grade, eventually learning about the American Revolution in the fourth grade. Other topics covered in the curriculum include Don Quixote in the fifth grade, the human body in the third grade and Native Americans in Kindergarten.
Last year, Cardenas said three elementary schools in Amarillo ISD went through the Amplify Texas pilot program, including Eastridge, Mesa Verde and Hamlet, with “life-changing” results. She stressed that while the curriculum was difficult at first, it eventually started to click for teachers and students, seeing an increased level of engagement at the end.
Right now, elementary schools in the district have the ability to choose whether they want to have the Amplify Texas curriculum or the HMH curriculum, the currently adopted curriculum. Currently, more than 30 campuses in the district have adopted Amplify Texas, with the Sleepy Hollow, Wolflin and Rogers Elementary campuses continuing to use the HMH curriculum.
Cardenas said that the Amplify Texas curriculum, along with the HMH curriculum, meets the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, along with the new standards that came from the TEA. However, Amplify Texas does have a big shift from what teachers have done in the past, previously having each of the teachers determine what resources they used in their individual classrooms, while still abiding by the TEKS.
“What the big shift is with this is we have something common that we can internalize together, we can collaborate through,” she said. “The rigor and the complex texts are something that sticks out as something that’s different with this curriculum than others, as well as constructed responses, which we know will be important moving forward.”
What did members of the public say about the program during Monday’s public comment?
While no action item or discussion item was on Monday’s agenda of Amarillo ISD’s regular board meeting, many parents, guardians and stakeholders showed up to the meeting to speak in the public comment portion about the implementation of the new curriculum.
Molly Anderson, a parent of two children in the district, said during her public comment that after she reviewed the curriculum, she claimed she found 61 examples of inappropriate content. She provided examples that mainly centered on sexual content within Norse and Greek mythology.
Anderson said she believes when children are exposed to “sexualized” reading material, images and messages, they will become desensitized and confused, eventually developing a sense of shame that something is wrong with them.
“Shame breaks down their natural, God-given instinct to protect themselves. A society that is written with shame and addictions will not fight back,” Anderson said. “They will not work for higher learning or community involvement. They will not strive to build a future for themselves, and as a result, self-destruct, relying on government to meet their needs. This is the socialistic agenda in action.”
Ultimately, Anderson requested that Amplify Texas be removed from the district and that Amarillo ISD returns to lesson plans that adhere to the TEKS and TEA’s standards.
“The process that is being formed to review and provide lessons before they get to children (in the Amplify Texas curriculum) is too late and unnecessary,” she said. “The prevalent and consistently woven themes of racism and sexual desensitizing content throughout Amplify curriculum is not accidental. It is intentional.”
Jamie Haynes, who runs the Texans Wake Up website, claimed in her comments that the Amplify Texas curriculum was not approved by the state’s Board of Education and brought forward her concerns that the curriculum was all online. Haynes also said she was concerned regarding claims that Amplify Texas was created by “leftist progressives.”
“Last I checked, this county was deep red. If so, why are we hiring the most progressive, East Coast liberal leftist ed-tech grabbing crew to teach our children?” Haynes asked during her public comment portion. “I’m asking for you to please step up and not only protect the children of Amarillo but be a leader for all of Texas. Be an example of the first district that pulled this harmful curriculum.”
Jennifer Gleaves, a reading specialist at Amarillo ISD, spoke in support of the new program, stating that the “handful of possible inappropriate text selections” within the curriculum was “far-reaching” and based on “false rumor and misinformation.”
Gleaves said this program makes teaching reading more equitable within Amarillo ISD, making sure all the students in the district have the literacy skills and knowledge required to fill out a medical form or a college admissions application.
“Board of Trustees, I implore you to not lose sight of what the true focus is and should be, which is ensuring that we as a district are both morally obligated and state-mandated to implement the evidence-based practices and instructional resources that… is known as the settled science of teaching reading,” she said.
Sheneka Wallace, a teacher at Eastridge, a campus that implemented the curriculum as part of the pilot program, said during the comment that even with it being difficult, they have seen “tremendous growth” on the campus.
“They’re engaged. They love to answer questions. They’re in discussion,” Wallace said. “They love everything about it.”
Wallace said with this curriculum, everyone in the district is receiving the “same rich curriculum,” something she would want her own Pre-K student to have. Wallace encouraged those who had concerns about the curriculum to have more of an open mind.
“I want people to kind of have an open mind about what we’re teaching and let us do our job because we are the teachers,” Wallace said. “We know how we’re supposed to implement this instruction for the kids to be better and successful in the skills that we’re teaching them. So, if they let us do what we do best, I guarantee you they will see growth.”
What did district officials say after Monday’s meeting?
Doug Loomis, the superintendent of Amarillo ISD, said that the discussion during Monday evening’s board meeting shows that there is an open dialogue between the district and the parents.
“We want to be a partnership and it’s sometimes really hard to have a partnership when you’ve got over 30,000 kids, you know,” Loomis said. “How do you get the voices there? How do you stop and pause and listen to everyone? Because everybody has a different take and a different perception.”
Amarillo ISD Board President Kimberly Anderson mirrored Loomis’s comments, stating that the district works best when it is in partnership with parents. Monday’s meeting served as an illustration of how parents can let the district know when they believe something may have slipped through the cracks.
However, Kimberly Anderson said that through this knowledge-based curriculum, deep conversations and critical thinking are occurring with students in classrooms, showing that there is meaningful learning happening. She connected this new curriculum with the board’s overall goal of closing the achievement gap in Amarillo ISD.
“That’s what we really want for our students… for them to become thinkers and creators and for them to be able to problem solve and to know just a depth of knowledge, a rich depth of knowledge,” Kimberly Anderson said. “That’s what I hear from educators that our students are getting from this curriculum.”
Loomis said this curriculum helps students see different perspectives through literature, seeing that it is a community with individuals of various backgrounds working together and not pitting individuals against one another.
“One of the things that we want to make sure is that all of our kids can see themselves in the literature that we’re using,” Loomis said. “We’re not about teaching (Critical Race Theory). We’re not going to villainize one race over another. We’re not going to get off into that realm. But what we will do is use literature that has kids, no matter what their background is, what their racial makeup is, what their socio-economic status is (and make sure) they can see themselves in the literature.”
Overall, Cardenas said she is thankful that last night’s public comment occurred surrounding Amplify Texas.
“We know how divisive our country is right now and unfortunately, education has been brought into that conversation,” Cardenas said. “Our goal is to educate our kids. Our goal is, again, to teach the Texas standards. We’re here to teach our kids reading and writing. We are not a political battlefield. We’re not a religious battlefield. We’re here to love kids (and) teach kids.”
Through this process, Kimberly Anderson said she learned that the district has to do a better job communicating about this curriculum, stressing that everyone has the opportunity to access the curriculum online.
“We’ve had town halls at different campuses, to try to empower parents to access it, trying to be as transparent as possible. But, we’ve got to do more,” Kimberly Anderson said. “We’ve got to do more in that area of communication and of empowering our parents with the processes to help affect change so that they’re not having to come to the boardroom and make statements where they can start with their teacher and know that they’re empowered to do that.”
Moving forward, Cardenas said that the choice of the curriculum will be made at the campus level through their respective site-based decision-making teams. Cardenas also said that district-level vetting committees are working through each unit of study in the Amplify Texas curriculum to determine if there is any inappropriate content.
Through that work by the vetting committees, the district has already made the decision to take out unit one of the fourth-grade curriculum next year, which included a vignette called “How to Eat A Guava” from the book “When I Was Puerto Rican,” an autobiography by Esmeralda Santiago. Cardenas said hearing multiple perspectives from teachers and parents helps strengthen the district and helps the district and teachers make the best decision for the students.
“We want to continue to strengthen our educational practices, but also marry that with the values and the hopes and dreams of our stakeholders, our parents in these communities,” she said. “We want to leverage those relationships and these conversations to make sure that we’re giving our kids the absolute best experience that they can in our schools.”
Cardenas said that if parents, guardians and stakeholders continue to have concerns surrounding the content of the curriculum, the doors of the various elementary campuses, along with the doors of the district’s support center, are open for that dialogue to occur.
“I think education is a challenging profession and so we have to look at this as a learning opportunity, a growing opportunity,” Cardenas said. “I hope that as a community, we can come together and we can be stronger because of this. Again, we want to work with our parents. I hope this is a lesson for all of us to come to each other, to talk to each other… We want to work together to build the best educational experience we can for our kids.”