Remove Acellus from AUSD Curriculum

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The Acellus curriculum contains disturbing racist, misogynistic, age-inappropriate, and culturally insensitive content that should not be a part of our students’ education.

At the heart of AUSD’s core values are the ideas of social justice and equality. “Everyone belongs here,” is a refrain our community holds dear. In recent months, with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining prominence, our district has committed itself to anti-racist policies and practices, creating ethnic studies classes for high school students, and actively pursuing ways to root out systemic oppression.

We ask AUSD to honor its commitment to social justice and uphold the quality of education of our remote students by immediately abandoning Acellus and choosing an alternative that reflects our district’s core values. Our students deserve better.  

Racist, Misogynistic, Culturally Insensitive Content in Acellus

In recent days, Acellus lessons which teach about economic justifications for slavery (1), equate Harriet Tubman’s escape to freedom to a burglar (2), and show dolls talking about being “woman-hating” (3) among many others have come to light.  A recent news report showed a lesson for kindergarteners which asked them to choose between two pictures in answering the question “What is a family?”  The two pictures depicted were of a white family that included a man, woman, and child, and the other a black woman and child. The correct answer was the picture of the white family. (4) A more complete list of supporting video and documentary evidence is included at the end of this statement.  A number of school districts that had contracted with Acellus to provide remote learning curriculum have decided to drop Acellus in light of these discoveries. (5) 

Illegitimate Credentials and Troubling History of Acellus Founder

Also concerning are revelations about the founder of Acellus, Roger Billings, his questionable credentials, as well as the credentials of many of the Acellus teachers.  Billings has adopted the title of Dr. but it is a degree he awarded to himself.  He conferred upon himself a “doctor of research” degree from the institution he created called the International Academy of Science, a non-accredited institution. A number of individuals involved in the creation of Acellus and its curriculum appear to have been awarded these degrees from Billings’ institution. (6) Also troubling is Billings’ purported involvement in the founding of a polygamist cult called the Church of Jesus Christ of Zion, where he was listed as the church’s “Patriarch and Prophet.”  Documents stemming from a lawsuit involving Billings and the Novell Inc. software company mention Billings taking over other people’s spouses as “celestial wives.” (6) Even without further details, our district should be incredibly concerned about allowing a company founded and led by this individual to educate our children online and collect data about their school progress. 

Practical Limitations of AUSD Response

AUSD has stated that it has been in contact with Acellus and Acellus allegedly has:

·     Taken down the lessons that have been tagged as racist or as having sexist or violent content

·     Revised each tagged lesson to reflect current attitudes and usage

·     Committed to reviewing all courses to ensure all material presented is culturally sensitive and in tune with present day attitudes and norms

AUSD has also tasked a team of its curriculum specialists to conduct an additional review of the core Acellus content. AUSD has informed families that in order for our students to be assigned any units in Acellus, AUSD teachers must first review them and then assign them. AUSD has assured families that it will not assign anything that it believe is culturally unresponsive or sexist in nature or that reflects anything other than a professional and inclusive approach to learning.

However, a number of problems and questions remain.  The recently removed Acellus content was discovered by parents in Hawaii after a short period of time with the program.  The question to kindergartners was discovered by parents in Peoria after only 3 days online.  What other troubling content remains that hasn’t yet come to light? Acellus’s founder stated that videos were taken down “because they seem to be offensive to some,” (7).  The removed videos are both offensive, inaccurate, and contain thinly veiled religious indoctrination. (8)  If this is the ambivalent attitude of the founder, what exactly are the Acellus screeners looking for?  Given that there are 985,000 videos in the Acellus curriculum, what kind of effective review can our AUSD team be expected to perform before students begin logging on? It is also an unfair expectation to hold our remote learning coordinators responsible for catching offensive content generated by Acellus.  Reviewing the large number of videos in each grade level curriculum is not the same as reviewing a textbook.  

AUSD already knows of problems with Acellus curriculum.  Continuing to use it as the educational platform for our students would be negligent.

Curriculum That Meets AUSD Standards

Learning and education is supposed to create a safe space. The Acellus program is anything but a safe choice for our students. The disparity in the quality of education between the district’s flex learners and remote learners is glaring. Our flex learners have the option of taking classes like ethnic studies.  Remote learners will be taught by Roger Billings’ staff with lessons that suggest the “Towelban” was an organization run by Osama bin Laden (9). Our Remote Learning students deserve education of the same quality and content that will be received by our Flex Learners.

In an interview posted on the AUSD Website on August 10, 2020, Chief Academic Officer Sara Stone is quoted as saying, “[b]eing an abolitionist educator… , according to Dr. Bettina Love, means that you truly believe that BIPOC matter.  That they are worthy.  She talks about the abolition of the systems of oppression that have created inequity.  In order to do this, we must be actively anti-racist.  As Ibram X. Kendi says, we need to look at our policies, practices, and systems.” If our BIPOC familes truly matter, then knowing what we do about Acellus, our district cannot utilize Acellus as a learning platform for its remote families. To do so would make the AUSD complicit in upholding systemic racism.

To further quote Sara Stone, “What’s happening now is a moment in time like none other in our lifetimes.  If we work to abolish the systems of oppression that were created to get the outcomes we have, we can finally create a new type of public education where BIPOC students matter and thrive.  It is not about “closing an achievement gap” that was created by our system, but actually demolishing this system and creating a new one that is anti-racist and where the characteristics of white supremacy are not driving our definitions of success. That work requires the courage both to analyze the current system and reflect on our own conditioning and views.” 

We are asking AUSD to demonstrate this courage now and abandon Acellus as the education platform for remote learning.

Signed,

Zorah Braithwaite, Cachet Berger, Jennifer Ekman, Veronique Levine, Leah Shae, Karen Watson

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Citations and supporting materials

(1) Slavery

(2) Harriet Tubman

(3) Woman Hater

(4) What is a family?

(5) San Diego terminates Acellus

Chico terminates Acellus

Hawaii terminates Acellus

(6) Roger Billings' background

Account from Billings' cult member

Billings' attitude toward COVID19 and science

(7) "Seems to be offensive."

(8) Intro to PE

"Fire Angel"  

 (9) "Towelban"

Additional material

"G is for GUN"

Age inappropriate "Sweetie Lips" lesson  

A Cloud of Controversy Follows "Dr. Hydrogen"

https://www.pajet.com  (This is the PE and Social Emotional Learning teacher, accredited by Billings’ institution.  The video at the bottom of the page is the same one used in Acellus curriculum.) 


 * A tremendous thank you to Heather Moselle and others who created the Hawaii petition and conducted the research that formed the basis for this petition and brought this information to light.