As if the first day of a new school year with distance learning in place wasn’t hard enough, the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District’s (LMSVSD) first day was made even harder by a sudden change in curriculum providers just days before.
Only a few days before the start of the new year, LMSVSD administrators came across reports published by outlets in Hawaii airing parents’ grievances about allegedly disturbing content in learning material provided by Acellus.
One lesson referenced in the reports depicts students portrayed by animals. One animal asks a pig character in make-up why she's called “sweetie lips,” and the pig blushes and replies, "Don't ask. We're not even going there.”
When LMSVSD Assistant Superintendent Deann Ragsdale confronted Acellus about the content, she said the company responded in a more “reactive” than proactive way.
Ragsdale’s responsorial statement read in part, "We did not feel that they recognized the severity of the issue, nor did we feel they would be able to prevent this from happening again. In the end, we had no choice but to terminate the contract."
The district has used Acellus for its independent home school program for two years, according to Ragsdale. In that time, no controversial content was flagged nor were any complaints filed.
This school year, the district contracted with Acellus to support the district's entire distance learning platform.
The district first came to know of Acellus because of a recommendation from a San Diego County Office of Education employee, according to the office’s Chief of Staff, Music Watson.
“An informal recommendation from an employee was perceived as an SDCOE endorsement,” Watson said. “Which is very reasonable, I understand that, but it led to the situation we are in now."
Watson said recommendations are common, but this informal recommendation wasn’t properly vetted by the county.
Watson also said the SDCOE doesn't know if Acellus's content is being used elsewhere in the county. Distance learning curriculum providers are chosen individually by schools, school districts, charter schools, and private schools and operations, and the county does not have the authority to force any educational entity to stop using Acellus.
“The reality is Acellus could be in any number of distance learning programs this year. Could be,” Watson emphasized.
NBC 7 reached out to Acellus by phone and email regarding the lessons in question and the contract termination but has not heard back.