Outrage over PCHS summer reading
Emotions ran high at the Park City School District Board of Education meeting Tuesday when several parents voiced their distress over one particular summer reading requirement at Park City High School (PCHS).
All PCHS students were required to read "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie over the summer, and according to the parents who spoke at the board meeting, it contains "explicit content."
The book is about Native American teenager Arnold Spirit, Jr. It details his life on the Spokane Indian Reservation and his decision to attend an all-white public high school off the reservation. Sherman Alexie, the author, grew up as a Native American on the same reservation he writes about in the book.
The semi-autobiographical novel won the 2007 U.S. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, but it also received criticism for the controversial issues Alexie describes. The provocative content includes alcoholism, bullying, references to masturbation, and the use of profanity.
The novel is ranked second on the American Library Association’s list of the 10 most frequently challenged books from 2001 to 2012 and has caused controversy in school districts across the country in states like Georgia, New York and Missouri.
"We just want help, as parents, to guide them," said one PCHS father. "I don’t want to never forgive the school district for having to explain to my daughter what male masturbation is."
A PCHS student said that it would be nice if alternatives had been given or if parents had been prepared in case their children had never been exposed to that kind of material.
One mother of a PCHS student also expressed concern that the school’s website recommended parents and students spend more money on the book by endorsing Dolly’s Bookstore.
"That seemed a little beyond the purview of a school district to be telling people where they should be spending their money and choosing commercial winners and losers," said the concerned mother.
Other parents were more concerned about what the reading assignment was actually teaching their children. When one mother asked her daughter what she learned from the book, she said her daughter told her that "apparently white people hate Indians, and now I know what masturbation is."
Kelly Yeates, an English teacher and English Department Co-Chair, believes that the controversy could have been avoided if parents had just contacted a department member directly.
"If they had done so, they would have found out immediately that we have alternate offerings," said Yeates. "They could have read another novel with similar themes talking about culture or the issues of bullying."
Alternative reading choices were not listed on the paperwork but verbally discussed, which Yeates admits was an unfortunate oversight. That is one correction school officials are making to the paperwork.
Disclaimers will also be included in the paperwork if there is mature material in future required reading. The forms were made available on the PCHS website as well as the district website on Friday.
Maurice Hickey, President of the PCSD Board of Education, said the board takes parent concerns very seriously and they would make sure Superintendent Ember Conley took the steps necessary to appease upset parents and students.
Conley met with PCHS Principal Bob O’Connor, and according to Conley, there is a plan in place. Rather than opt-out forms, students will be given "opt-in" forms requiring written parental consent for their children to take part in future summer reading assignments, she said.
Conley and Yeates both said that the whole purpose of choosing a book for required summer reading is based on thematic issues.
"The themes discussed in the book are identity, self-awareness, conformity, acceptance, and how we treat people who are different than us," said Conley. "These themes are the right things for children in high school to be learning about."
Yeates believes that PCHS students are smart enough that they can look at the novel or any novel assigned academically and that the department brings in other sources that are contrary and let students make their own judgments on what is or is not valuable and how they want to think about it.
Conley conceded that better communication with parents regarding any material that can cause concern should be encouraged and that she has been in tight communication with the district in terms of fixing the problem.
All parents who spoke at the board meeting agreed that a "heads up" about the contentious material in the novel would have been greatly appreciated, and the district has responded with disclaimers and corrections in parental consent forms.
"People’s hearts were in the right place, and it really was an oversight," said Conley. "We absolutely could have done better, but we are doing our best to make it right."
According to Yeates, if parents have concerns, they can always volunteer to become a part of the novel selection committee or contact the teacher to discuss any concerns over content choice with the teacher in particular.
"We absolutely value the parents’ role within the decision-making process for our students," said Yeates. "We want to be a partner in that, not an obstacle."
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The Park City Board of Education is on track to place a bond on the ballot this fall to improve district facilities. The top priorities would be to put ninth grade in the high school, eighth grade in the middle school and to augment preschool offerings by expanding elementary schools.