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Book Selections Draw Crowd to Ohio County Board of Education Meeting

Changes Don’t Amount to Bans, School Leaders Say

photo by: Photo by Derek Redd

Ohio County Schools Student Services Director Raquel McLeod discusses changes to the books used in elementary curriculum at Monday's Ohio County Board of Education meeting at Wheeling Park High School.

WHEELING — Ohio County Schools isn’t removing ideas or learning from its elementary shelves, but it is replacing some books with others deemed “more appropriate” for young learning, according to Raquel McLeod, the district’s student services director.

A larger-than-usual crowd turned out to Monday’s Ohio County Board of Education meeting at Wheeling Park High School.

This happened after word got out on social media that some books were not going to be used in classrooms, and had been removed as options for elementary school curriculum.

McLeod denied that the books had been “banned,” as some had claimed, and she pointed out some people present wearing shirts stating “facts matter.”

“That totally stands out today,” she said. “We have some things going around today that were a small snippet — and not the whole story — about what we are doing in our reading series.”

She said she and a committee of teachers from throughout the school district began reviewing books sent to them as part of their new “Wit and Wisdom” reading series last August. Text and illustrations within each book were examined to see if they were relevant to learning and age appropriate to grade level.

The first book in question was “The Story of Ruby Bridges,” a book about a young Black girl’s experiences when she integrated into a New Orleans school in the 1960s. The book was to be taught to second grade students. But McLeod said when the committee reviewed illustrations in the book, there were signs shown in which “the N word” was used.

“To me, a second grade student doesn’t need to see that,” McLeod said. “But a second grade student needs to know about Ruby Bridges, and about segregation and what happened in 1963, so we don’t make those mistakes again.”

The school district, instead, will teach the book “Ruby Bridges Goes To School: My True Story” written by Ruby Bridges. The pictures in the book are actually of her, and she writes of what is happening at the time, McLeod explained.

The second book the committee discussed pulling from the curriculum was “Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington,” also directed toward second graders.

The book contained a photo showing men, women and children being sprayed with a fire hose.

McLeod said she believed that image did need to be shared with older students as a topic for discussion and as a writing prop. But younger second graders, she explained, wouldn’t grasp its context.

The school district still will teach second graders about King. But the first book has been replaced with another illustrated book, “What Was The March On Washington?” It better tells the story to “an 8-year-old mind,” according to McLeod.

Illustrations were also a consideration in a third book, “Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez And Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation.” It depicted immigrants as sitting in dirt surrounded by flies, and promoted a stereotype “that anyone of Mexican descent would be seen as dirty,” McLeod said.

But after reading the text, the committee saw the immigrants were on a farm and had to sit on the ground near cow pastures, which brought flies.

“When you look at all the words … and how brave Sylvia and her family were to fight segregation … that far outweighed anything that may be construed negatively.”

The book is now being taught to students.

The book “Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei,” however, is no longer part of the third-grade curriculum. McLeod said this is because the book didn’t tell much of Galileo’s study of the moon and stars, which is what was called for in the established curriculum. Instead the writing focussed on his persecution by the Catholic church, who disagreed with his idea about a sun-centric solar system.

The book “did not enhance instruction,” and is being replaced by another called “Who is Galileo?” It tells more about his scientific research, she said.

Similarly, first graders won’t be introduced to “Seahorse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea.” It is intended in the curriculum as a means of teaching vocabulary, and the meaning of the word “shy,” according to McLeod. But the book doesn’t use the word to much extent, and there are other book options for students, she said.

McLeod stressed the school district is still teaching the same concepts as before but with different books.

“We are teaching the history,” she said. “We are making sure our civil rights leaders are being celebrated. … We are not trying to ruin any books or any topics we are using for our content.”

After the meeting, McLeod said the committee that reviewed the books was open to all teachers in Ohio County Schools. But she also acknowledged there is little ethnic diversity among the county’s teachers to provide a broad-based review.

The committee wasn’t opened to the general public this year because of COVID concerns, she added.

photo by: Photo by Derek Redd

Robert Strong holds up a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution while discussing changes in books used in schools at Monday night’s Ohio County Board of Education meeting at Wheeling Park High School.

Seven members of the community did sign up Monday night to speak during the meeting on their opposition to removing books from school shelves.

Roberta “Robbie” DiLorenzo said eliminating literature is an attempt to suppress the truth. She donated to each school building in the district a copy of Stacey Abrams’ book “Stacey’s Extraordinary Words,” in which the Georgia gubernatorial candidate tells her story of competing in spelling bees when she was the students’ age.

Jenny Craig, president of the Ohio County Education Association, said OCEA members had been expressing concerns to her about the elimination of books from the classroom.

She said she was glad at least some of these books were being replaced with others.

Local business owner and science expert Robert Strong said he had spent many years in countries where the people not only couldn’t speak their minds, but also couldn’t read what they wanted.

This is why he feels it isn’t “just my right, but my duty” to speak up when limits to speech or reading are placed.

photo by: Photo by Derek Redd

Marlene Midget discusses changes in books used in elementary school curriculum before the crowd gathered Monday night at the Ohio County Board of Education meeting at Wheeling Park High School.

Marlene Midget, retired director of Head Start in Ohio County, spoke of her past experience with the diversity team formed in Ohio County Schools in 2017, and how it needed to be reformed in the school district.

Teddie Grogan and Barbara LaRue, co-chairs of the Ohio County Democratic Women group, spoke out against the banning of books. They then spoke of the importance of education, and gave their support to teachers.

Ron Sinclair, chairman of the Wheeling Board of Zoning Appeals, suggested it’s best not to paint the past to suit current attitudes.

“Sometimes we just don’t want history altered just to seem pretty,” he explained.

McLeod said after the meeting she and the committee may re-examine some of the books deemed inappropriate for students after listening to the comments made by the public.

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