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'Controversial' freshman English book considered by D-205

ELMHURST – The District 205 Board of Education approved a 30-day display period of textbook adoption proposals for next school year that allows parent and community review Tuesday, including a "controversial" book requested for ninth-grade English.

"It's just one of those books ... a lot of people think it's a great book. A lot of people think it shouldn't be a book in curriculum in a high school," board vice president Shannon Ebner said.

The "Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian" by Sherman Alexie was brought to the board last year but never went through the review process. Teachers have requested the board consider it again. The book follows Junior, a Native American, as he leaves the Spokane Indian Reservation where he's grown up to attend an all-white high school.

Ebner explained the book's controversy revolves around issues in its content including drugs, alcohol, poverty, violence and sexual references.

"At the same time, it's won a lot of awards," Ebner said.

According to Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Charles Johns, the book is being used in other area schools as a ninth-grade text, either as a summer read before school begins or during the school year.

"I would argue that many of these topics are discussed in high school in some form or fashion," board member Margaret Harrell said.

Board Secretary Karen Stuefen questioned the book's lower-than-ninth-grade Lexile score, which is a measure that determines reading level.

"I wouldn't think it runs [really] high, but the content area are topics that students around the age of a freshman in high school would be addressing," Johns said.

"If it's not ninth-grade level, I wonder why," Stuefen said, continuing to question the book's place in freshman English curriculum.

Johns did explain that in years past when York High School has used the book, teachers did not spend a great deal of time on it. Instead, they saw it as a great way to kick off the year.

Board President Jim Collins said the high school's proposal related that although the book may not be at a ninth-grade Lexile level, it gives kids who have trouble reading confidence as they enter high school, and kids who read well get excited about the year.

"The York English department has some very compelling reasons that are very thought provoking as to why you would include this," Collins said.

He also said that students who had read the book overwhelmingly chose it over other titles. Harrell thought this should be a heavily weighted consideration along with the English department's request. She still wanted to hear from the community as well.

"Ultimately we have to make the decision to balance all of these concerns, and there will be parents who won't like it," board member John McDonough said.

Collins explained that he'd much rather have these discussions now before the book becomes part of the curriculum. The Sherman Alexie book along with all other textbook adoption proposals are available for the next month on the second floor of the District 205 building, 162 S. York St. Community members are encouraged to read the books and give input via comment cards.

The board plans to vote on the textbook proposals at the April 22 meeting.

"We as a board reflect the values of our community. I'd like to hear from our community," Collins said.

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