When University Park resident Sarah Jordan saw her daughter reading at the family dining table, she didn’t expect to see her high-achieving student using White-Out on the book.
“I picked it up and ended up reading the book cover to cover,” Jordan said. “If this was made into a movie, it wouldn’t even be NC-17.”
Her daughter’s pre-AP, 10th-grade English class was reading The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, which Jordan felt to have pornographic passages regarding an inappropriate relationship between two characters.
The book is one of many that has caused heated debate among parents of Highland Park High School students.
To break it down, there are three types of reading lists used by the school: summer reading, core curriculum, and “recommended outside reading,” or ROR
Jordan’s daughter was reading a book from her class’ core curriculum list, but many of the other books in question — such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky — are from ROR selections.
The full ROR list includes 250 to 300 books, which are approved by a review committee (made up of parents and teachers) and the administration. Teachers then make a “short list” for their students to choose from based on that list.
“For the last three years in particular, we have been very delicate in making sure [the books] go through multiple department chairs,” HPHS principal Walter Kelly said.
Unlike the summer reading and core curriculum lists, the master ROR list is not housed online. Instead, students must log into their Moodle account to view their own teacher’s individual list.
That has led to confusion and frustration on the part of many parents — many of whom prefer that a master list be made available online. Kelly called the parents’ call for a comprehensive online list a “fairly recent request.”
Another point of confusion lies in permission slips. Kelly said that though permission slips are not given out for every text covered, they are distributed when a book may have controversial material. But some parents feel the slips are not detailed enough in their descriptions of the books.
“We don’t want to stomp on anybody else’s right to read the material,” said HPHS parent Tavia Hunt. “We just want true and informed consent.”
Lately, these issues have caused a flurry of emails among parents, ranging from the concerned to the outraged. In response, Kelly sent out an email to parents on May 12.
“Our processes and selections should meet the developmentally appropriate balance of challenging our students’ thinking while upholding community values and standards,” Kelly said in the email.
He also reminded parents that they have the option to refuse a particular text, per state law. But parents are not always made aware of this so easily.
“I was never made aware of that,” Jordan said. “We would have taken that, had we been told.”
In fact, following multiple meetings with the school, the Jordans decided to pull their child out of the Highland Park school system and enroll her in private school.
Another common argument — one that helped the Jordans reach their decision — is that the lists should rely more heavily on “classic” pieces of literature.
But the school maintains a standard of including reading material from all different periods of history, including more contemporary works.
“It’s just wrong for me to sit back and not try to improve the quality of literature for our kids,” Hunt said.
Going forward, members of the PTA and the Highland Park Literary Festival committee will be enlisted to nominate parents for the book review committee. After all, upholding community standards is one of the goals Kelly has outlined for literature selection.
“There’s not always a clear-cut answer, and people don’t always agree,” he said. “There is a healthy push-pull about what is a community standard.”
The district is already revising permission forms for next fall’s classes. On the forms, parents will be encouraged to read the texts in full prior to consent, and the form will indicate where in the book there might be controversial passages.
A timeline for how quickly parents would need to return the forms is yet to be determined.
“We want to be more transparent about that,” Kelly said.
Parents do have the option of formally requesting that books be added or removed from the ROR list. To do this, they must fill out a form and return it to the district office. But Kelly said that no parent has done so, to the best of his knowledge.
“I encourage our parents to research and work with us as partners to make sure we’re all making the right decisions,” Kelly said. “The more informed parents are, the better those decisions are.”