School Committee logo, Jan. 23, 2013

Committee to investigate, report in March

Should kindergartners attending the Arlington public schools read "The Magic Tree House" series? Are parts of the eight books used here too frightening for children that age?

Some Arlington residents think so and have started a process to review the content.

The School Committee was told on Thursday, Jan. 23, that by mid-to-late March a report about the issue is expected to be completed. A public meeting may follow that.

Objecting since November

Among those objecting to the book series are Stratton parents Michael Vartabedian and Kathleen Coughlin. The latter addressed the committee during public participation last November; the former on Thursday.

"I came here tonight to once again, go on record to respectfully request that a public meeting be held where parents can ask questions, make comments and be informed about the Tools of the Mind curriculum," he said.

Read his full comments here >> Read his wife's comments from November, which includes passages from the series, here >>

Three other parents spoke during public participation Jan. 23. Two questioned use of "The Magic Tree House," and one said he no issue with the series.

Teachers involved questioned

During an agenda item about the Tools of the Mind, Superintendent Kathleen Bodie and Assistant Superintendent Laura Chesson said such a meeting was in the works.

Bodie said she had met with parents about this issue. The district program is in kindergarten classes, not preschool, she said.

She said she had talked with two-thirds of the teachers involved in the program, and they say they are not reading passages deemed frightening.

Noting that a number of parents support the series, she said: "This is not the only literature being read" in kindergarten.

The district is using eight in the series, which has a total of 51 books.

The policy involved

The School Committee has a policy and procedure addressing complaints about curriculum. See them here and here.

Chesson is chair of the committee looking into the matter. She has received the formal request for reconsideration of material, per the policy. Included on the committee are Sheri Donovan, the Thompson principal who is the administrator in charge of Tools of the Mind; a Brackett kindergarten teacher and a parent.

Chesson said committee expects to meet about mid-February following completion of the Dallin principal search. She expects a report from the committee by mid-to-late March.

Asked by board member Leba Heigham whether all would be status quo until then, Chesson said, "Yes."

Member Bill Hayner had questions about what would occur after the two-year Tools program, now in its first year, is over. The matter remains to be seen.

Public meeting suggested

Member Jeff Thielman asked whether there would be a public meeting about the issue. Chesson said the policy is silent about that.

Later, committee Chairman Jud Pierce said that after following the process put in place, he preferred a public meeting.

"I'm not seeing the controversy," member Paul Schlichtman said, but he made clear he favored the process undertaken.

Others at public participation

Also speaking at public participation was Andra Fogel Shea, who said that it "breaks my heart" that these books are the only ones required for kindergarten. She cited a 2013 Education Week report, which refers to a study by Patricia Mackay that casts some doubt on Tools of the  Mind.

Chuck Miller, parent of two at Thompson School, told the committee that his daughter was in Tools of the Mind last year, when it was a pilot. His second 2nd daughter is in the program this year. He said he has no issue with the Tools curriculum. He said his second daughter is "more excited about learning." He said was open to listening to concerns.

Christopher Geyer, parent of kindergartner at Bishop, said he loves to read stories to his children. While reading "Magic Tree House" series, he came to passages about pirates pointing pistols, and he said he "didn't feel comfortable" with some passages. He thought the violence portray inappropriate or kindergartners.

Bodie said that, soon, a "leading investigator" in Tools of the Mind program from New York University would be coming to Arlington. Her office did not know the name or when.

DA Ryan at Ottoson on cyberbullying

In other business, Bodie praised the appearance of Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan at an Ottoson assembly on Thursday, Jan. 23, where an estimated 1,100 students and staff heard a program about cyberbullying.

"She is a born teacher," Bodie said of the DA, who addressed issues that teens face in online relationships.

"It's a difficult problem," she said. "I favor taking away the phones at night."

This story was published Friday, Jan. 24, 2014.