The Alexandria School Board repealed a policy for selecting and reviewing instructional materials at its Monday night meeting, and took the first step toward replacing it with a new version.

The changes are in response to objections by a group of parents to a half-dozen books that were among those offered to eighth graders as part of a new language arts unit this past school year.

The new policy, which received its first reading Monday, directs staff to "consider the needs, age and maturity of students" when selecting materials, and they should "foster respect and appreciation for cultural diversity and varied opinion."

Selection criteria will examine: the connection to the curriculum; reviews from various sources; recognition; recommendations; and whether it is age-appropriate, both in terms of content and vocabulary.

It also set up a system to handle future objections, requiring an initial meeting between staff and those filing a complaint, with a review council attempting to settle the issue within two weeks. That council will consist of a principal, a teacher, a department head or team leader and two people appointed by the school board.

The policy could be approved by the school board at its July meeting.

Revisions

Superintendent Julie Critz told the board that the significant revisions involved combining language from its policy with the Minnesota School Board Association's recommended policy. It came out of meetings with a newly-formed subcommittee of the Curriculum Advisory Council, which includes district staff, parents and community members.

"Our group had some wonderful conversations and dialogue," said Assistant Superintendent Rick Sansted. He said they have chosen a date in August to meet with the language arts teachers, and they discussed how to add student voices into that particular unit.

He admitted the district "really missed the mark" on communication, and that the community engagement and feedback it received enabled it to make improvements. Innovations can come from failure, he said, and learning from missteps.

Ryan Rooney, who was part of the parents group, attended the meeting and echoed a point Critz had raised about finding the right place to address subjects.

"Some of these things can elicit some pretty strong responses," he said, and a health class might be better suited for certain topics and give students the support they need.

"It was enjoyable to have civil discourse," Sansted said, calling himself an optimist. "How do we turn some of our challenges into positives?"

His solution would be to create an eighth grade parent and student book club, where they are both reading the same books.

Task force

Sansted also said that a task force had been created to deal with the other topic that brought around 80 people to the May 20 school board meeting - allegations of bullying at Discovery Middle School.

The task force is holding its first meeting Thursday, he said, with middle school administrators and teachers, community members, Michelle Bethke-Kaliher of Student Support Services and himself. The task: "How do we make sure it's a welcoming place for everyone."

Sansted acknowledged it would be foolhardy to think that the district will never have an incident where someone is mean to someone else, and said that stories like the ones told at the May board meeting are occurring, not only in Alexandria but in districts all over.

"How do we make sure we are creating a place and a culture that we don't have to wait until a school board meeting to hear that story?" Sansted asked, praising the courage of the former Discovery student who stood up and addressed the board last month.

Middle school is often the toughest three years of people's lives, Sansted said. Getting together with others and sharing ideas on how to make things better is something he is looking forward to doing.

"We want every child to feel safe at school and have a great experience," Critz said, noting they have looked at both the school's policy and its consequences.

The Minnesota Department of Education has a three-year pilot program for safe and supportive schools that the district could look at joining, she said.

For more from Monday's school board meeting, see Friday's Echo Press.