A Mother’s Journey Through Arizona’s K-12 School System

By Heather Rooks

I am a busy mom of 4 wonderful children and a wife of a hard working husband. I had the best memories of watching each of my children experience their 1st year of school in the Peoria Unified School District (PUSD). Their teachers were kind, engaging and overall the same experience I had in PUSD growing up. My husband and I had the great memories at Frontier Elementary and Sunrise Mountain High School.

Something in the schools changed in January 2021. I noticed a shift in my two older children’s content in the classrooms. My oldest had said he felt uncomfortable one day after watching the Presidential Inauguration in class. I had no clue that both my 2nd grader and 4th grader had a classroom activity that involved the viewing of the inauguration. I reached out to their teachers who have always been very helpful. I was surprised by the reason for the inauguration being shown in class.  I was told by my 4th grader’s teacher that “the team” decided to change the lesson plan from Martin Luther King Jr. week to the viewing of the Inauguration as a “teachable moment” – although the same could not be said of the 2016 inauguration. This is where I began my journey into figuring out what was going on in the District.

I began reaching out to other parents for information and attending Governing Board Meetings. I wanted to know if there were other parents going through similar situations. And of course there was.

I started learning about parental rights under Arizona Revised Statutes and how they applied in the schools. I worked together with a support group of parents. Together we formed a parent Facebook group so we could stay in touch and have meetings to share what we learned. We started going through governing board agendas and seeing what was being voted through. We wanted to learn more about how the process works, how much power came from the Board and how much the Board really knew about what administration is putting into our kid’s education.

One thing I noticed was how little effort the Peoria Unified School District puts into helping parents and the community understand the whole governing board process such as the adoption of district policies, requesting public records and more.

For example, I learned curriculum resource materials are only allowed to be viewed at the district office. We need better access and more effort by the District to make materials /curriculum proposed for Board approval available especially now that so much of the curricula and supplemental materials are digital.

With help from a few people on the outside who knew how things worked, I learned how to request public records on professional Teacher development programs and communication emails in the District that included curriculum.

I talked with other parents about the curriculum and the ideas that were being taught to their kids in the upper grade levels. I learned that topics such as discrimination throughout American history is being taught with black lives matter;  George Floyd, mob mentality, CNN news resource in classroom assignments and students knowing their teachers political affiliation was all showing up in middle school classes.  During all my years as a student in the Peoria Unified School District – K-12 – I never knew any of my teachers’ political affiliations.

I started to learn more about Critical Race Theory and the idea behind diversity, equity and inclusion.

As a parent with two children with disabilities on Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) that affect their everyday lives I thought the inclusion idea was great. But the diversity, equity and inclusion that I had researched was twisted and not actually for children with disabilities.

I didn’t want any curriculum or program teaching my children that they were privileged based on their race. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to teach a child that their skin color determines who they are in life. My mother and grandparents always taught me to reach for my goals and work hard for my future. America has always taught that anyone can succeed in this country.

I started reading through the different items on the April 5th board meeting agenda. Once I started looking at the supplemental material vendor lists of three contracts under the Consent Agenda I reached out to our group. We worked together to figure out what was on each vendor website.

The content for some of the vendors was not easily accessed without subscription; some vendors had their message of the same concept of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and more. The ones that really stood out were Cengage, Gale, Savvas Learning Company (formerly Pearson Publishing known for Common Core) and Everfi . These are just a few of the vendors which are all part of the SAVE consortium contract on the Consent Agenda. Topics on these websites included Social justice, gender identity book titles for all grade levels, Culturally Responsive Learning, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, LGBTQ even for younger grades like kindergarten and more.

One of the vendors, Everfi, has a description of Diversity Foundations for High school that introduces learners to key concepts of identity, bias, power, privilege and oppression. In that lesson learners explore the concepts of power, privilege, oppression, discrimination and racism.

The real shocker was the day of the board meeting when I was able to access the Peoria Public Library’s database list. Of course Gale Academic One File, the vendor listed on the SAVE Contract, was listed. I clicked on the link and was taken to the actual website where I had to type in the barcode of the library card.

From there I typed in a title provided by the contact from Colorado (who had the same situation with Gale and Cengage Company in their child’s district) called Abuse Porn: Reading Reactions to Boys Halfway House. The article was very descriptive on an adult website for boys and at the bottom of the article I saw the sources listed with 4 blue links. The 1st link took me off the Gale website and directly to a gay pornographic webpage. To say I was shocked is an understatement.

I had in four days discovered controversial topics, hidden content and links to pornographic websites off of one contract the District wanted to purchase for their teachers to use in our children’s classrooms.   The curriculum department explained that the district had to choose curriculum that matched changes to the AZ State Standards. When they began their “process” they turned to a preapproved contract complied by Mesa Public School District for the SAVE Consortium so that the work was done for them and would be a “cheaper” process.

My questions are why is no one else in the district curriculum department checking through these vendor websites before bringing them to the Board for approval and into our children’s classrooms?

How could the Superintendent Reynolds and his staff in the Curriculum Department fail our children and our trust by not researching EVERY single vendor listed on that contract?

Why would the district not want to invest in the time and money searching for outstanding and appropriate resources for our kids learning?

This contract was on the Consent Agenda for approval of the Board without discussion and only as a financial expenditure with no information being provided by the curriculum department about the content.

I am grateful to James T. Harris for having me on his radio show so other parents could hear what is going on. These same parents came to the standing room only board meeting to voice their disapproval of the content of these supplemental materials and the associated websites.

It reminded me of America and how strong it can be when we come together. I spoke at the board meeting and talked about my findings of links to porn websites from the supplemental vendor resources.

Thankfully, board member and Representative Beverly Pingerelli (R LD21), with support of board member Rebecca Hill, motioned to table all three contracts and have the curriculum team bring forward exactly which vendors they wanted to use in the schools. The board all voted in favor of this idea and Beverly Pingerelli asked to allow the parents to view the content of each vendor.

There’s nothing better than sending your child off to school for their first day. These are moments you cherish for a lifetime. You trust the teacher. You trust the principal. You just trust. Then all the sudden the trust is gone and you’re left with fighting those you trusted. Those you trusted to educate your child.