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Utah publisher Reading Horizons says its programs can help schools make reading simple and even fun for struggling students, using a methodology that focuses on phonetics and "decoding" words.

But it's the stories the sounds tell that have the attention of teachers and parents in Minneapolis, where the school board Tuesday demanded a public apology and a refund from Reading Horizons. Minneapolis Public Schools last month recalled the company's "Little Books" series for "culturally insensitive and unacceptable material," according to a statement from its interim superintendent. (A PDF of his statement is available on the left of this story.)

One title, "Lazy Lucy," is about a young black girl in an unspecified area of Africa who struggles with keeping her hut clean. An American Indian girl and her father, dressed in brown clothing and headbands, set off to hunt a woolly mammoth in "Nieko, the Hunting Girl." The book "Kenya" introduces the country and its residents with tidbits like "Kenyans are able to run very fast."

Reading Horizons' implementation coordinator Laura Axtell said the focus on these titles — there are 54 in the "Little Books" series — ignores the context of how they're intended to be used. "Lazy Lucy," for example, takes place in the safari unit, she said.

"But if people perceive that they're culturally insensitive, then they're a distraction to reading success."

Axtell said the company, based in North Salt Lake, has been working with the district "around the clock" to make things right in Minneapolis and everywhere the books are being used.

Though "Lazy Lucy" never made it into Minneapolis classrooms, the series has been available for three or four years, Axtell said. She said she couldn't say whether the books are used in any Utah schools.

More than 10,000 schools use Reading Horizons programs, and the company is looking into which have purchased the "Little Books" series, she said. A voluntary recall is one idea they're thinking about.

"The thing that has become very apparent is that we need diversity," Axtell added. Although the Little Books look like storybooks, she said, they were produced by a small team with a specific technical focus: making sure each word could be "decoded" for pronunciation and comprehension with the tools taught in the wider lesson.

More people will be reviewing material going forward, she said, both inside the company and outside it, including teachers and parents.

"Our goal is to affirm cultural competency and equity," Axtell said.

Minneapolis Public Schools' $1.2 million contract with Reading Horizons came about as part of the district's Acceleration 2020 plan, which aims to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color by 2020. Currently, the gap is more than 50 percentage points, with just 23 percent of students of color proficient in reading and math.

The district plans to stick with Reading Horizons and is implementing its programs without the books. "Research shows [Reading Horizons] has been successful in improving student outcomes across the country, including outcomes in diverse districts like ours," interim Superintendent Michael Goar wrote in a public statement, noting that the books were collected from the teachers and returned to the publisher once officials became aware of the books' "painfully offensive" material.

Teachers first saw the materials during a Reading Horizons training in early August, and photographs of the books quickly made the rounds online.

"It is not acceptable that in 2015 reading materials for children would contain language and imagery that perpetuate stereotypes that are hurtful and insulting," Goar wrote.

The supplemental series was made available to Minneapolis teachers after the rest of the Reading Horizons curriculum had been approved and successfully piloted. "Due to staffing shifts and the desire to get a program in place for the new school year, the books were not comprehensively vetted," wrote Goar, who has served as interim superintendent since February, while the Minneapolis school board searches for a new superintendent.

He told The Tribune on Wednesday that the district has had "ongoing conversations with Reading Horizons about inequities in those books and their company."

"Perceptions by people in the community are very important to us," said Axtell, who was hired by Reading Horizons several months ago but started just last week. "This opens a conversation for how we provide the most effective resources for how to help kids be effective in reading."

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