HPISD Not Judging Books By Cover

Highland Park ISD may have completed its review of Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, but the discussion of book appropriateness, the role of parents and teachers, and the correct processes for the district, is far from over.

The discussion dates back to last summer, when groups of parents began voicing concern over some books that were being used for either in-classroom reading or “ROR” — recommended outside reading. Many of the texts in question contained passages with sexual content.

Parents banded together and presented these concerns at a school-board meeting on Sept. 9. Following that, seven works were “temporarily suspended” from classroom teaching. Yet roughly two weeks later, the district reversed the suspension. Only one book remained in question for a formal review.

In early November, a committee of 12 people — made up of parents, teachers, librarians, students, and counselors — formed to review the book, following EFA (LOCAL) policy. By the end of the month, they decided to uphold the book’s use in the classroom.

“This is the first experience we’ve had with the reconsideration committee, so we made an effort to really strictly adhere to the policy and be faithful to what the policy called for,” superintendent Dawson Orr said. “In that sense, I think the reconsideration worked the way it’s supposed to work.”

Following the review, the district published the committee’s full report online, indicating that all 12 members voted that the book accomplished its purpose and exhibited authenticity, but 11 of the 12 voted “yes” on appropriateness.

“The review process was difficult, in part because the district’s formal review process was created to review textbooks, not works of fiction,” committee member and HPHS parent Tavia Hunt said. “Many of the questions we were required to answer were not relevant and it made it difficult to thoughtfully evaluate the book on the real issue at hand, which was age appropriateness.”

The supporting documents included things like national reviews of the book, committee guidelines, learning objectives, book lists, questionnaires, and emails. The Art of Racing in the Rain was listed on the lesson plan under “lessons for understanding others.”

“I implored the committee to consider that in the last year, three families have left the district over their child being mandated to read and discuss sexually explicit material in class,” Hunt said. “I hoped that the book could be used as a ‘choice offering’ instead of as curriculum, which would allow those who want to read the book to essentially ‘opt in’ instead of forcing others to ‘opt out.’”

The committee conducted an activity in which each member was given three dots to place votes on their preferred action regarding the book. In the end, there were 32 out of 36 votes for “confirm the present use of the book for whole class required use.”

With that review finalized, the district is now looking to make sure their process is as effective as possible. On Dec. 9, Orr and HPHS principal Walter Kelly reviewed some possible amendments to policy before the board — some as minor as edits to wording, and some weightier such as protocol training for new hires.

One major proposal was that teachers would dictate the book list annually, with community feedback, rather than rely on the existing list of more than 200 titles.

Overall, the purpose of these edits will be to make sure the book-selection process is easy for teachers, transparent for parents, and beneficial for students.

“Our high school and English department really are analyzing and working with the trustees on our local procedures and practices to make sure that we establish systems that have thoughtful selections of literary works,” Kelly said.

Though no vote was required on Dec. 9, the district does anticipate reviewing possible edits with action at its January board meeting.

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