HCS Book Removal Discussion

An Email Conversation with HCS Board Member, Alisa Ferrell, and Parent, Sarah Threlkeld

4/7/16: I contacted Ms. Ferrell (and copied the rest of the board) this morning and she replied quickly, professionally, and in detail. I asked her if I could share her responses and she replied quickly in agreement. I appreciate Ms. Ferrell's prompt and thoughtful responses and look forward to continued communication. Sarah Threlkeld
4/7/16 am

Dear Ms. Ferrell,

Will you please clarify the rationale behind the forced removal of
non-digital textbooks from Huntsville City Schools? As a parent of a
student at Weatherly Heights and an educator (in another district) with a
Master's Degree in Education, I am very disturbed by this idea and I hope
it is not true. My MA is in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis on
Technology, so I highly embrace and promote technology use in education. I
think the 1:1 initiative, if balanced with non-digital learning
opportunities, can provide a rich learning environment in the 21st
century. I look forward to getting clarification from you about this


Sarah Threlkeld

4/7/16 10:41 am

Ms. Threlkeld:

Thank you for your email. Thank you too, for including your school in your email, so we know which one of the five of us should respond to you first.

I hate to make this a long email response, but I always like to make sure everyone knows the history behind our Digital 1:1 transition. If you are an educator in Alabama, then you have up close and personal knowledge of the historical funding issues we have had for text books and libraries. We were at $95 a student for texts, then $75, then $0 for several years. When Dr. Wardysnki started in HCS our text books were in a state of advanced age and disrepair. There was one school who had been using a set of Biology texts that were over 40 years old. When the state cut funding, our elementary students were the hardest hit, because so many of those texts are consumables...tear out sheets. HCS was in a position that we needed to do a complete system upgrade on our texts because it had been neglected for so long as a result of a lack of funding. The cost to update all the texts was in the $19-$20 million range and we were in debt by about $21 million, so there was just not money to do it. Curriculum was becoming digitized and we found that it we did a system wide curriculum digital 1:1 transition rather than purchasing hard copy text books, that the financial impact would be less, all our students would have equitable access to the same curriculum, HCS would be able to move towards individualized learning for each student, and we would catapult our students into the digital age that they will be living in as adults. As an aside, one of the most frequent comments we receive from our graduated seniors after the first year of digital 1:1 was that they found they were more prepared for the college transition, with its digital texts and digital homework and test submissions, than their peers were. As a result they were more successful.

Change is never easy though, and a few parents struggled with the transition. Some wanted hard copies. Some students with vision issues needed hard copies. We worked with our curriculum provider and received a classroom set of text books that first year, for those students who were not ready for the transition and wanted to use hard copy. Those classroom sets have been in the classrooms for classroom use for the last four years. Fast forward to today, , and the majority of our students are comfortable, fluid and very fluent with digital 1:1. We have decided to move the classroom sets out of the classroom and into the library. Students who still want to reference a paper copy of the text can now check them out and use them at home, if they need to. Contrary to the social media and blog traffic, we are not holding some sort of dystopian book burning party somewhere. We are retaining the textbooks, making them accessible, and making it possible for a student to check them out and use them at home. Of course, any student with an IEP or a 504 who has vision challenges, has accommodations in place for those challenges.

I hope this helps to clarify some things.

Elisa A. Ferrell

Board Representative | District 3 | Huntsville City Schools | 256.655.8019

4/7/16 4:48 pm

Thank you very much for the information, Ms. Ferrell. I really appreciate you taking to time to clarify the issue.

If the teachers wish, can they choose to keep the textbooks in their classrooms? For example, when the Internet is down or when students need a screen break? I am an educator. For the majority of my class time, I utilize digital textbooks and teaching resources. However, having access to textbooks has rounded out the educational experience for my students and ensured that instruction will not stop when the technology fails. This does not happen often, but it is also good for students to have a break from digital screens every once and a while. Teachers use supplemental resources like inviting a guest speaker to come to class, doing hands-on projects, or using additional print material to help students understand a topic. New research shows that digital and text-based learning activate different areas of the brain, so I personally think as a parent and an educator in the field of Educational Technology, that allowing for multiple learning modalities is paramount. The schools already have the books, so if a teacher chooses, what can the harm be in keeping a set in his or her classroom?

The online Pearson textbook material purchased by HCS is not what teachers are responsible for teaching. Teachers are responsible for teaching the AL College and Career Ready Standards and they use the online Pearson textbooks for support. If an individual teacher is consistently not teaching CCRS because they are using "old" books, that teacher could be individually spoken with by an administrator. I go to conferences and trainings with Huntsville City teachers all the time. As a whole, Huntsville City School teachers are knowledgeable, hard-working, highly educated, passionate, amazing educators who dedicate their lives to educating our children. I know we can trust the majority of HCS teachers to follow CCRS. It would be a very disheartening situation if HCS administration feels they cannot trust their teachers.

Having supplemental textbooks in their rooms if they choose, will not negate Huntsville City's wonderfully innovative 1:1 initiative. Conversely, it shows the depth of understanding our teachers have about how children learn in the digital age, which also includes when to not use digital resources.

Has the district polled parents and teachers (the learning experts with classroom experience and educational degrees) about this issue? The Huntsville City teachers and parents I have communicated with (please note: I have not spoken with my son's past or current teachers about this issue) have grave concerns about the perceived top-down arbitrary directive of removing books from classrooms without considering teacher input. Again, I fully support the 1:1 and espouse the use of digital resources most of the time for the very reasons you listed in your response. I have not communicated with anyone who is against the idea of the 1:1 plan. The concern we have is why can't the teachers have a backup? Why can’t they have a choice about what type of supplemental resources they use to teach the standards? Is there a peer-reviewed study somewhere that indicates the removal of occasional-use classroom textbooks enhances educational outcomes in a 1:1 environment and by not removing occasional-use textbooks, it sabotages 1:1?

Thank you again for your thoughtful response to my concerns and also for representing my family as our Huntsville City School Board member. You have the challenging role to balance the needs of many stakeholders and I appreciate you. I appreciate what you do for our children. Ralph Ellison said, "Education is all a matter of building bridges." Thank you for bridging with me, a member of your constituency. I look forward to continued bridging with the administration and Board of Huntsville City Schools. With all stakeholders together, we can make HCS the best possible learning environment for our children.

Most Sincerely,

Sarah Threlkeld


4/7/16 4:54 pm

Ms. Ferrell,

I sent you a long reply to your reply but forgot to ask if it is ok if I share your reply with other HCS parents.

Again, thank you for your support!

Sarah Threlkeld

4/7/16 5:14 pm

Ms. Threlkeld;

That is fine. I am double checking my numbers on the cost of the digital curriculum. We had an initial outlay and then some additional update charges with Pearson, so I might be low on both the cost of traditional text books. I am verifying numbers, but I believe the cost of traditional text books would have been $23.5 million for 7 years and the cost of digital was $20.5 million for 6 years.

Elisa A. Ferrell

Board Representative | District 3 | Huntsville City Schools | 256.655.8019