The Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education will receive a recommendation from Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams to adopt a foundational reading skills curriculum for kindergarten through third grade students on June 11. The recommendation will also be to delay an adoption of a “knowledge-building” literacy curriculum for at least another year.

Minneapolis Schools Voices sat down to talk with David Weingartner, Khulia Pringle and Sara Spafford Freeman, who started MPS Academics Advocacy in 2020 to improve literacy outcomes for Minneapolis Public School students. All three were members of the district’s Literacy Steering Committee which met from October 2023 through May 2024 to review and select a new literacy curriculum for the district. Weingartner and Spafford Freeman are both parents of Minneapolis Public Schools students. Pringle is the Manager for Outreach and Organizing for the Nation Parents Union in Minnesota. The interview took place on June 8.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Melissa Whitler: The district has just wrapped up its search for a new elementary literacy curriculum. What's the new curriculum?

Khulia Pringle: We're sticking with Benchmark and adding UFLI.

Note: UFLI is pronounced “you fly” and stands for University of Florida Literacy Institute.

MW: All three of you were on the steering committee. Did you all vote to adopt UFLI?

KP: I voted yes to adopt UFLI but no to postpone [adopting a knowledge-building curriculum].

David Weingartner: There were three votes. Khulia and I voted no to postpone adopting a knowledge-building curriculum. We voted yes to adopt UFLI. Then we abstained from the vote about going to a [request for proposal] next year.

Sara Spafford Freeman: And I was not there because I had been told no decisions were going to be made. It was just going to be a debrief.

MW: The district's presentation says that it's adopting UFLI but that it's delaying adopting a knowledge-building curriculum. What is a knowledge-building curriculum? Why do kids need that?

DW: The classic example is the baseball study where they had children that were poor readers that know a lot about baseball. And they turned out to be just as good of readers as highly skilled readers [when they were given something to read about baseball]. So a lot of what reading is is based on subject knowledge and vocabulary. Exposing children to a much broader worldview helps them comprehend more complex text. So the idea is giving a sequenced liberal arts education, which exposes them to those vocabulary that helps them become better readers, better thinkers, better writers.

MW: The district presentation says they need another year to look for a knowledge-building curriculum because the options approved by the Minnesota Department of Education are not culturally sustaining. So presumably then the district is already using a culturally sustaining, knowledge-building curriculum, and this delay won't have any impact on students?

KP: That's the problem. There is no culturally sustaining curriculum out there. The district is not using a culturally sustaining curriculum currently.

DW: We've heard this from multiple teachers, that the foundational skills were completely deficient in Benchmark [the district’s current elementary literacy curriculum]. Which is why the district has been throwing all these hodgepodge foundational skills curriculums at schools. We've had Groves. We've had [functional] phonics. Some schools are using UFLI. There's probably 10 different foundational curriculums that are being used by schools around the district. So there's no consistency.

MW: That seems really odd to me that you would have a school district where teachers are using different curricula across the district when the district has a literacy curriculum.

DW: Benchmark is severely deficient in the foundational skills to the point where states like Colorado have banned it and forced districts to replace it.

KP: [The district] audited Benchmark last year. That was the reason why we are in a curriculum search. It lacked the culturally sustaining piece. There is no current culturally sustaining curriculum out there in the world. The way that other districts have overcome that is by supplementing the culturally sustaining piece.

DW: And [Benchmark] was also brought in because the previous one, Reading Horizons, was thrown out for cultural competency issues.

MW: I want to go back to this knowledge-building piece. We're talking about the literacy curriculum. This is kids learning to read, write. You're saying kids need some sort of background knowledge. But the district already has a social studies curriculum and a science curriculum. And those are culturally sustaining and knowledge-building, right?

DW: No. There's no social studies curriculum.

MW: I thought they bought one last year for elementary grades?

DW: Yeah, they threw it away because it has socially and culturally non-affirming issues. It was palleted in the warehouse when we were looking at literacy curriculums. There were big pallets full of all the books they were sending back to the publisher.

MW: Minneapolis elementary students don't have a social studies curriculum?

DW: That’s correct.

SSF: Or science.

MW: But the district has Benchmark right. So every school already has this same curriculum. And you're saying, the materials are outdated. But everybody has this and everyone uses it?

DW: Initially that was not so. Until we came on board [the district] said half the schools were using Benchmark, half were not.

MW: I feel like for someone who isn't an elementary school parent in Minneapolis, what you're saying is going to sound really hard to believe. That the district has a curriculum that they have said is not good. And some schools are using some type of phonics and some are already using UFLI and some are using Groves. This must be some sort of shocking revelation

DW: In 2009, the curriculum audit said the same thing. They've known for over a decade.

MW: Previous school boards and previous superintendents have known that there's a mix of curriculum being used? Kids aren't getting what they need, and it hasn't been fixed yet?

DW: This has been a long standing issue. We've had teachers write about their experience 10 or 15 years ago.

MW: Presumably the current school board is aware of all of this and wants it changed because standards aligned core instruction in literacy and math is in their strategic plan.

DW: I wouldn't necessarily say the board is aware, but the READ Act is forcing them to act basically.

MW: The district presentation says that implementing UFLI plus LETRS training plus a knowledge-building curriculum in the same year is too much to change all at once.

DW: Our request to the district is you can spend next year doing an RFP and finding the magical curriculum. You can go out to other districts, you can do whatever methods you can to make sure that this is good, but we would like the implementation to happen at the same timeline. Which would be the following year [2025-26].

SSF: We have no horse in the race other than you can't keep delaying this one more year and then one more year and then one more year. We're calling bullshit on that.

MW: The district presentation also says that all elementary teachers will have to take LETRS training over the next two school years. I thought the district had already spent a significant amount of funds on LETRS training for elementary teachers.

KP: I think the READ Act requires that they get LETRS training. And all of their teachers haven't done it. It's only been like 130 something that have done it. [The district] couldn’t force teachers to do it.

DW: [LETRS] was voluntary. But now it's mandatory.

SSF: LETRS is like doing a masters program essentially. It's just a lot.

MW: LETRS is not a curriculum?

SSF: No, it’s not. People don't get it. But people are going to be pissed because it's like 180 [170] hours. It's not easy. It's a big ask of teachers on top of a bunch of other asks.

MW: To summarize, next year in 24-25, the district will search for a knowledge building curriculum that is culturally sustaining, which you guys say does not exist, but that's the plan. Then the following year in 25-26, you're asking them not to do a pilot but just adopt something in 25-26. But the district says in 25-26 we'll pilot a culturally sustaining knowledge building curriculum.

SSF: Hold on, Melissa. Sorry. I want to push back on big time that there's a plan. The district has the aspiration. I've heard the aspiration. It’s definitely something they'd love to do. I haven't heard what they're actually going to do. And I think that remains a problem because last year we were going to audit and then do the RFP this year.

DW: And then that gets torpedoed.

MW: Why?

DW: For the staffing issue. All your [academic department] staff were in the classrooms because they couldn't get teachers. So your whole academic team was not available. And the person they hired to do it had to quit for personal reasons. And they weren't able to hire somebody. The entire academic team I think turned over like three times since COVID.

KP: We voted to not do an RFP at the beginning of this whole steering committee process in October. Here we are doing the RFP. We voted three weeks before the school board is supposed to vote on the pilot, and here we are postponing a pilot.

MW: One of the criticisms I hear from teachers is that every year the district is asking them to do something new. A new teacher can’t come into the district, use the existing curriculum year after year, and work to improve their practice with that curriculum because it keeps changing.

DW: That’s a valid concern.

KP: It’s a valid concern.

SSF: It’s a valid concern in every job in every industry in the knowledge-based economy. This factor is not unique to teaching.

MW: Why not split the knowledge-building and the foundational skills curricula over two years?

DW: I think it's addressing what some would argue is a more critical need, the foundational skills. But I guess I would argue every year is important [for students]. UFLI is the [kindergarten through third] grade program. We still have students in third through twelfth who struggle with reading and struggle with comprehension. They struggle with expressing themselves. They still struggle with foundational skills, so it's all important components.

MW: What else do people need to know?

KP: I just want to make sure that we’re not putting this on the steering committee. Most of the steering committee members were not there for the vote. It was the representative [advisory] committee that was mostly there, and that was mostly teachers and principals. They were the ones that voted. The representative [advisory] committee was not involved in the whole process. The steering committee was involved in the entire process and most of those people were not there. I would just add the demographics of the group was not diverse. The representative [advisory] committee was not a diverse group of people.

Note: According to the district’s timeline, the representative advisory committee was formed in February 2024, and the steering committee was formed in October 2023.

DW: I would just add we've been repeatedly told. We had the 2015 special education audit, we have the data from the dyslexia screening. Our academic team has told the board the vast number of children that need interventions. And we rely on a multi-tiered system. So our focus this whole time has been improving core Tier 1 instruction. And to do that, we really need to focus on training our teachers and providing them with high quality material. And reducing the number of kids needing tier two and three [instruction].

SSF: If I could ask a question of the superintendent, the board, like anyone who would answer the question. Would another one year delay– not the first, not even second– would another one year delay happen if nine out of ten kids in these high risk categories were white and we all know the answer is no.

KP: Black kids can't wait.

MW: There’s a small but vocal group of people locally, in Minneapolis and in Minnesota, who think that teaching phonics is a Republican thing, and they are really opposed to it because they believe it is something conservative. George Bush likes phonics. Are you guys secret Republicans?

SSF: No, I would tell those people to do their homework. That's what kills me. This is a teachable, learnable subject. Go learn it yourselves. And no one becomes more of an expert on any of this than a parent trying to get help for their kids that can't read. They don't have to take our words for it. There's no shortage of great, great research on this that's very accessible, including in podcasts. Read it. Podcast it.

KP: I think most people actually do give a shit. And I wouldn't think that that's straight politics. That ain't got nothing to do with this. And that might be the only thing me and George Bush agree on. And that does not mean I'm a Republican.

MW: David, are you a secret Republican?

DW: No. I would point to the body of work that the American Federation of Teachers has done. Our advocacy is aligned pretty much 100% with them. They have been outspoken on the need to train teachers, the need for knowledge building curriculum. They have a resolution calling for better training for teachers, better material for teachers. If you were to look at who they used as resources you will not find any of the whole language people on their website. You can search for them all. They're not there. They are very much aligned with the science of reading.

MW: My last question. The last time I interviewed Sara and David, in 2022, there was a small but vocal group of people who attacked Sara. David, you were mostly left out of that. They claim that you want to destroy public schools. They have claimed that you must have a financial stake in a curriculum company. Or that you are being paid by someone politically conservative to advocate for improved literacy instruction. Is any of that true?

SSF: What I think is so funny is that we don't have horses in this race, but we've stayed focused on the issue. The best way to prevent any sort of progress on any given issue is to sling mud about the messenger. I mean it's a trope as old as time.

I honestly cannot think of someone in the state of Minnesota in the last decade who spent more time at the legislature begging for money. I became a “change the education finance funding formula” lady. I am doing nothing if not trying to ensure that public schools have a sustainable financial future, and that's real work and real facts and data, not just vibes.

MW: Who is paying you for all of your advocacy work?

SSF: My kids, frankly, because I'm ignoring them while I'm doing it. I grew up in a public school. I am a bougie member of Southwest Minneapolis, Linden Hills because of the public schools that launched me, and working in finance and numbers. I don't want to destroy public schools. I want to fully and fairly fund them and rewrite the equations used at the state legislature to do that.

DW: I got involved in this over Reading Horizons. I had the opportunity to talk to some of the teachers that piloted that curriculum and they shared with me the story of a student who was functionally illiterate. The student was at the bottom of the class, was misbehaving in the classroom. They had tried all of the tools that were at their disposal. This new order Orton Gillingham-based curriculum within a couple months of pull-out sessions, the student went from the bottom to the top of the class, her writing improved. She became a different person. My advocacy has been finding more kids like this, and I hear from parents across the district who share these same issues we experience ourselves as a family.

KP: I will say because you have not written about me and did not get push back on me, you will. If you put my name in there, you will get the same back because of who I work for as well.

MW: Do you want to destroy public schools, Khulia?

KP: Absolutely not. I am a product of public schools. My dad brought me to the United States and kept me here illegally so that I could have access to public schools. I am a proud public school alumni. My daughter was in public school. My advocacy has been public school parents. Yeah, there's no way in hell.

Who will pay me? When the people that look like me have access to quality education, that will be my pay, because then we will no longer be at the bottom of all the disparities across Minnesota housing, economic, criminal justice, health. Every single social determinant of health, Black people are at the bottom. And it starts with the education system.

That system has to be fixed and I cannot– no way in hell– because destroying that system, when that is the first point of equalization that my community feels. That will be the way out of poverty. And it has not been the way for generations out of poverty.

DW: It's a privilege to be able to advocate and not to be compensated. Khulia, could you do this without being compensated?

KP: I don't have that privilege. I have to make this my job as a black woman.