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Some Hawaii public schools drop Acellus online program after pushback from parents

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Laie Elementary School’s principal sent a letter to parents Aug. 7, announcing that her school would be using the Acellus distance learning program. Three days later she reversed course in the face of “overwhelming concern.”

Aliamanu Elementary followed suit on Sunday, abandoning its plans to use the Acellus Learning Accelerator and canceling its students’ accounts with the company, based in Kansas City, Mo. On Monday, Shafter, Hickam and Nimitz elementary schools also dropped it.

“We chose Acellus based on the recommendation of curriculum specialists as well as the fact that Acellus is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges,” Aliamanu Principal Sandra Yoshimi wrote in a letter. “However, based on the inappropriate and racist content, Aliamanu Elementary School feels that this curriculum is unsafe for our students and does not align to the values in our mission and vision statement.”

Some parents and teachers are objecting to what they see as sexist, racist and unsuitable content in Acellus courses. They also question the qualifications of people behind the program, including Acellus Chairman Roger E. Billings, whose photo and blogs are featured on its website.

The controversy over Acellus took local education officials by surprise. Acellus offers more than 300 courses in kindergarten through 12th grade, and about 188 public and charter schools in Hawaii have Acellus licenses, according to the Department of Education. Its courses are often used for “credit recovery” for students who didn’t pass a class.

“We have been using the Acellus Learning Accelerator for more than 10 years, and we did use it for credit recovery over the summer,” said Alisa Bender, interim assistant superintendent for the Office of Curriculum and Instructional Design. “And it wasn’t until August did we receive any complaints.”

“Acellus is WASC accredited and endorsed by the NCAA and it’s been endorsed by the College Board for its AP classes, so we felt comfortable about the quality of the instructional materials,” she said.

Acellus Academy, the private, online K-12 school that uses Acellus courses, is accredited by WASC, its Advanced Placement courses are approved by the College Board, and core courses accepted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. But the Acellus Learning Accelerator, which is used in Hawaii public schools, is not accredited, said Barry Groves, president of WASC’s Accrediting Commission for Schools.

Charles Souza, the digital design team leader for DOE, said he tried out the algebra class himself and checked with local schools that had used Acellus before putting it in place for summer school.

“The feedback we got from schools was it was a very good program, the kids loved it and the teachers loved it,” Souza said in an interview. “So we put it in place for credit recovery in the summer and for schools to use as a distance learning supplement.”

He likened it to a textbook, allowing teachers to give students independent online study assignments. The self-paced software adapts to each child’s knowledge and skills, he said, and allows teachers to monitor how students are faring in real time, and pinpoint where they are struggling.

Hawaii’s public school principals have the discretion to choose their online learning platform. Along with Acellus, options include Edgenuity and Edmentum, and some campuses are piloting content from Arizona State University Prep Digital. Florida Virtual Schools content is also used by the department’s Hawaii Virtual Learning E-School Program and some secondary schools.

In early August, parents and teachers began sharing screenshots on social media of snippets of Acellus courses they found sexist or racist or inappropriate for young kids.

Bender said the department contacted the company regarding the “negative tweets” and was told by the Acellus representative that “the claims have been tied to a competitor and have not been substantiated.” She said DOE representatives have tried to locate the objectionable content themselves without success.

That may be because Acellus already has taken action. Last week, Acellus told its official parent support group that it had removed three items from its courses: a lesson about the economic justifications for slavery; a lesson about Harriet Tubman that included an image of a bank robber; and a multiple choice question about Osama Bin Laden that referred to the “Towelban.”

In a post on his Facebook page Tuesday, Billings said about a dozen lessons had been reviewed and revised “to reflect current attitudes and usage” after being tagged as having racist or sexist content.

“Acellus is committed to its 18-year tradition of providing professional and effective lessons to students at over 6,000 schools nationwide,” the post said. “We would like to express our gratitude to everyone suggesting improvements to the Acellus learning system.”

A phone call and email last week from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser seeking an interview with Billings at the International Academy of Science, the nonprofit that owns Acellus, went unanswered.

Some Acellus instructors have degrees from recognized universities, while others have credentials from the IAS, which is not accredited and is Acellus’ parent company. They include Billings’ “doctor of research” awarded by IAS.

On its website, Acellus touts Billings as “the inventor of the hydrogen-powered automobile” and credits him with “significant innovations in the areas of renewable energy, computer networking, cybersecurity and education.”

Acellus Academy students are eligible for scholarships if they commit to participating in his weekly “Science L!VE with Roger Billings” lecture, part of his mentoring program.

One of his Twitter posts recently making the rounds dates to May 18: “So far, everyone #COVID19 killed was going to die anyway. When we go back to work, some of us may perish sooner than normal but at least those that live will be alive. We no longer can cower in fear and shame. #BackToWork.#MAGA #AcellusScienceLive.” The tweet has been deleted but part is still visible on searches.

The most recent publicly available tax return for International Academy of Science, filed on March 3, 2019, shows revenue of $9.7 million and $3.4 million in expenses, or a net of $6.3 million. The previous year, the net was $3.5 million on program revenue of $6.1 million.

A bulk rate for Hawaii summer schools this year was just $25 per student license for as many courses as needed, and about 9,000 students took at least one course. This fall, the price for new student licenses is up to $100, Souza said.

Acellus is offered in two ways at Hawaii schools, either as a complete curriculum for 100% distance learning students or as a video-based tool for public school teachers to supplement their instruction. Students who choose 100% distance learning students have a teacher of record at their local public school but not daily monitoring of their performance.

David Brier, whose son is in fifth grade at Waikiki School, sampled Acellus as a 100% distance learning program and came away disappointed. He says he and his wife, Vicky, didn’t find objectionable content but they had other concerns.

“Rather than teaching, Acellus presents information,” Brier said. “Thus if you don’t understand, you play the video again. It simply repeats. … As a supplement to a blended or online program, it’s a useful tool. By itself, though, it is not effective.”

“Although there is a Waikiki School teacher assigned to students on 100% distance learning with Acellus, their primary function appears custodial rather than instructional,” Brier said.

His family opted for the blended program, with a team of Waikiki School teachers each handling different subjects such as math, science and social studies, with various instructional approaches.

A promotional video on the Acellus website features educators in St. Louis public schools praising the program for helping students pass classes and preventing dropouts. That district, however, stopped using the Acellus Virtual Program on May 15. A call from the Star-Advertiser to the school district inquiring about that was referred to the district’s lawyer, who did not respond to a call or email.

Hawaii teachers have described parts of the Acellus curriculum as lacking rigor, out of date and “cheesy.”

Colleen Spring, a teacher at Laie Elementary, believes the program appealed to some educators as an easy fix in the sudden switch to distance learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think for some people it just seemed like a heaven-made simple solution, a program that touts itself as being complete, that uses science and artificial intelligence to precisely pinpoint each student’s academic needs and meet those needs with great efficiency,” she said. “To me from the get-go, it sounded way too good to be true. The average student in Hawaii needs more than an algorithm to succeed. They need a reaction. They need a program that fits with their lived experience.”

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