Credit: Anne Frank House

It’s not easy to turn a long-struggling school system around.

And it’s not easy maintaining a commitment to teaching the dark parts of our history to schoolchildren.

In New Bedford, we must do both, and the challenge of that has become apparent over the last few weeks, after The Light was approached by individuals concerned that the New Bedford School Department this year has moved away from long-taught learning blocks on the Holocaust and civil rights.

The truth is that the school system is not moving away from those learning blocks, but it did abruptly embark on a new curriculum in October that has made it more difficult, if not impossible, for some 8th grade teachers to use them. Specifically, the disallowed materials centered around a play based on the Diary of Anne Frank and materials used in connection with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

“It was not the best way to implement it,” acknowledged Deputy Superintendent Karen Treadup of the new curriculum, which is called CommonLit 360 and which was unveiled after the school year had already started. Treadup and two other school administrators met with The Light last week about the complaints. “We felt that the needs of the — what do we have 3,000 middle-school students? — were important. They did not have another year,” Treadup said.

Treadup and the two other administrators — Chief Academic Officer Brian Turner and Laura Garcia, the English language arts manager for middle and elementary schools, cited lagging New Bedford middle-school MCAS scores, along with the effects of two full-school years upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, as reasons they felt they could not wait to change the curriculum. They acknowledged that they had not obtained buy-in from some of the faculty before moving to the new approach. The change was also not the result of urging of Mayor Jon Mitchell or the New Bedford School Committee, Treadup said.

“If you look at our scores, and how the middle schools are performing, they are in first, second percentile across the state,” Treadup said. “And we didn’t feel that we could waste time, one more year of not teaching grade-level materials and grade-level texts. So this was the quickest way for us to get everybody on it.”

Garcia explained that there are a wealth of scientific studies over the past 30 years that show students learn literacy through knowledge building by being exposed to the vocabulary and relevant texts.

The problem with some of the texts on the Holocaust and civil rights that New Bedford teachers were using for topics like Anne Frank’s diary and the MLK letter were that they were at 3rd-grade level, rather than the 8th grade, where they were being taught, Garcia said.

“In order to build literacy, we need to have grade-level texts. We need to provide students complex texts that they can analyze and look at,” she said.

The school administration is now in the process of identifying more appropriate texts to teach the topics dealing with the treatment of minorities, which they acknowledged are important areas for school children to learn.

Although the New Bedford school system has long featured lessons on the Holocaust, and the civil rights movement, it is not an absolute requirement at any time in the K-12 system. Neither are lessons on Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, New Bedford abolitionist Paul Cuffe or the history of the indigenous Wampanoag population. A lot of discretion is left up to individual teachers.

Some outreach on teaching minority issues is done through events like the annual Martin Luther King essay contest and Yom HaShoah, the The Jewish Federation of Greater New Bedford’s Day of Holocaust Remembrance, held each year in April. The federation also sponsors the Trunk of Tolerance Project that supplies educational Holocaust materials to educators and others who may want them.

Accountability reports for Roosevelt, Keith and Normandin middle schools

A teacher who was using the Frank and MLK materials in question said he was baffled that administrators had suddenly discovered that texts that have been used for 40 years were now inappropriate. The teacher, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution by administrators, said that in order to successfully teach literacy, you have to teach things that kids want to read. The materials in the new CommonLit curriculum were deadly boring and generated little interest from students, the teacher said. 

The challenge in New Bedford, according to the teacher, is that out of 70 8th grade students in their classes, only a couple are actually at an 8th grade reading level. The majority are at 5th grade level and roughly 20 percent are at 2nd-grade level.

“From my experience, the Number 1 telltale for kids reading at grade level is if they read outside of school,” said the teacher, who has been teaching in the city for more than two decades. So that teacher’s goal is just to get New Bedford students reading anything, period.

There seems to be a disconnect between the fact that New Bedford 8th grade students score so poorly on MCAS and the fact that 10th graders must pass the MCAS in order to graduate. New Bedford graduation rates have shot up markedly over the past decade,  and the school system has announced the improvements to much fanfare.

Treadup said she expects improvements in the graduation rate to be sustained and said the system is in the process of overhauling the whole curriculum. Right now, the system is running pilot programs that will lead to still another curriculum, instead of CommonLit, being implemented next year. That curriculum is looking for grade-level texts on subjects like the Holocaust and civil rights.

“Right now, we are focusing on the middle school,” Treadup said. “We’ve also implemented a new math program, K-8. So we’re taking what’s outdated, you can’t keep the same curriculum for 10, 15, 20 years. You need to update it.”

Leaders in Greater New Bedford’s Jewish and African-American communities expressed concern that New Bedford administrators would emphasize curriculum changes over protecting lessons on important minority history, even temporarily.

“You can’t just not teach these two subjects while you’re working your way up to more satisfactory levels of texts,” said Amir Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Bedford. There are certain subjects that cannot be left to the choice of individual teachers.

LaSella Hall, president of the NAACP New Bedford, said that the NAACP has been pushing the city for quite some time for a curriculum that includes “robust” studies of African-American and indigenous topics. He said that challenges related to sensitivity to minority views are related to the fact that while  64% of New Bedford public school students are minorities, some 80% of the school staff is white.

The NAACP has advocated for an affirmative action plan for the hiring practices to change, he said.

As far as the new curriculum, Hall questioned why the system would adopt a new curriculum in the middle of a school year that has some restrictive elements.

“Where is the input from the community,” he asked. “Why not call a town hall?” before embarking on such big change.

“Where is the transparency?”

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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