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Sullivan BOE gets positive feedback on early elementary reading program

Rick Wagner • Apr 25, 2018 at 1:27 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — When a 7-year-old girl who had never been to school entered Bluff City Elementary for the 2016-17 school year, Principal Cathy Nester said the girl began in kindergarten because she never had been exposed to education, church or other such structured activities.

After all, Nester said, the girl had lived most of her life in a car in a larger city with her mother. But as a first-grader at the school in 2017-18, the student is thriving academically, and Nester credits that to the work of teachers and the CKLA (Core Knowledge Language Arts)  program. The county is using it in pre-K through second grade and is expanding it to third grade next academic year.

Opinions on CKLA

That was one of the stories told to the Sullivan County Board of Education during its nearly three-hour work session Tuesday as it heard reports on CKLA, which got a shining review from administrators and teachers, but a critical one from BOE member Jane Thomas of the Bluff City area.

Thomas, a retired county teacher, argued that among the 60,000 pages of the CKLA program, used for English and language arts with science and social studies embedded in it, is content too mature or advanced for the lower grades and scripted teaching and content which she said is an attempt to indoctrinate students with non-Christian religions, with the latter point being her main concern.

Is mythology study pushing ‘false religion’ to students?

She complained about sections on “gods and goddesses” and Greek mythology, saying “it is false religion,” although board member Matthew Spivey of Kingsport said that learning about Greek mythology is not the same as converting to it. She also complained about a section where a “god” formed animals from clay.

However, Robin McClellan, supervisor of elementary curriculum and instruction, said of 63 teachers who answered a survey, only one had an issue with that topic, although teachers can remove or modify sections determined to be inappropriate. Among that same group, 98.4 percent said CKLA was putting students in the right direction.

“How is learning about Greek mythology indoctrination, Mrs. Thomas?” Spivey asked.

She responded, “Matthew, little children believe their teachers are telling you the truth.” 

However, Spivey said his 4-year-old knows the difference between myths and reality, fairy tales and real life.

Thomas also complained that the program explained Greek and mythological names for the planets but not the origins of the name for Earth, although Indian Springs Elementary first-grade teacher Vicki Conrad said one of her students during that section responded that Earth was named in the Old Testament book of Genesis. 

“It levels the playing field for all children,” Rock Springs Elementary third-grade teacher Tracy Huffman told the board, explaining that all students are read passages and able to comprehend that information even as their reading skills develop.

Indian Springs Elementary parent Mindy Ball said her son chose “Colonial Night” for his sixth birthday, making candles, butter, ink and Johnny Cakes by candlelight, while Nester said students write persuasive essays from the point of view of Stephen Douglas or Abraham Lincoln circa the 1860 presidential debate. 

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