‘This one event feels like it’s three steps back’: How a virtual lesson plan slipped through the cracks at Patrick Marsh Middle School

SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. — After a sixth-grade virtual assignment at Patrick Marsh Middle School put the Sun Prairie School District under scrutiny, it left many unanswered questions, but one in particular: How did this lesson plan get approved?

News 3 Now reached out to multiple district staff members throughout the day seeking answers, but the district didn’t respond to any of our messages.

One parent, who’s daughter was a part of the history class that received this assignment, sent the PowerPoint questions to News 3 Now. Students were asked to answer how they would punish someone guilty of robbery, how they would punish a wife who left her husband after arguing with him all day and how they would punish a slave who tells his master “You are not my master.” The lesson was part of an assignment teaching about Hammurabi’s Code.

Scenario 1 Scenario 2 Scenario 3

“I have no words. That’s inexcusable,” said Teran Peterson, President of the African American Parent Network of Sun Prairie. Peterson also has two children in the Sun Prairie School District, serves on the anti-bullying task force, is a Dane County Supervisor for Sun Prairie and volunteers as co-chair to help plan Black History Month events for the district.

Peterson is well versed on the racial equity training some teachers receive and has taken the training herself. Peterson said the training is optional.

“The District is partnered with the Pacific Education Group. They have a three-year contract. The first year is all about working with district leadership and the school board. The second year they work with building level principals. The third year, the training goes down to teachers and staff,” Peterson said.

SPASD extended its contract with the Pacific Education Group and has now been working with them for four years, according to Peterson, meaning every teacher now has access to the training and resources they provide.

“Each school has an equity team,” Peterson said. “It consists of teachers who took the beyond diversity training and they’re responsible for distributing it across the building.”

Peterson said the principal looks over teachers’ lesson plans once a week, but the plans are generally broad. She added that if a teacher wanted the equity team to review a lesson plan, they have access to the resources to be able to do so.

“That should be a resource for any teachers like if they review curriculum and they’re like, ‘I don’t know maybe we should have someone else look at this,’ there’s definitely opportunities at the building level at hand.”

Peterson said it’s apparent that there are teachers who do not want to take the extra step. During the Beyond Diversity training she attended in 2019, Peterson said 25 people participated in each of the two sessions offered. Peterson said the all-day training is in person. Speakers come from the Pacific Education Group to lead a discussion and ask questions like “How far is your barber from where you live?” and participants move to different sides of the room based on their answer. She said at the end of the questions asked, white teachers were all on one side of the room and all the teachers of color were on the other. After the training, participants were given projects to complete and distribute to their schools to continue the educational process. Peterson said the fact that there are resources available at every school for teachers who want to be racially conscious of how they lead a classroom makes the virtual learning incident at Patrick Marsh Middle School heartbreaking.

“This one event feels like it’s three steps back,” she said. “I don’t want to dictate what they should do but I also know that what’s happening now can’t happen again.”

News 3 Now also reached out to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction about the incident. In an email, they responded: “Curriculum is established at the local level by school boards, and school district policies may provide further clarification on if there is a district process of approval for lesson planning. The DPI has provided resources and supports for teaching lessons regarding Black History Month, and encourages educators to build meaningful relationships and an understanding of their students and their cultures by using culturally-responsive practices.”

“Can we take this as a moment to learn and grow and be better? I hope so,” Peterson said.

Peterson said she’s advocating for the termination of the teachers involved.

Where did the lesson plan come from?

News 3 Now learned that the assignment given to Patrick Marsh Middle School students was a program that teachers can buy online for $3.99. We also learned that the same program has been the cause of controversy for several other school districts in the country, including in South Carolina and Michigan. News 3 Now reached out to the program developer and the owner of the site where the program is sold. Neither have responded to our request for comment.

Moving forward:

Alwyn Foster, who has two kids in the Sun Prairie Area School District and is running for a seat on the school board, said the entire incident is “exhausting” and “infuriating.”

He hopes that by running for a school board seat, he can help ignite change for the district in the future.

“We’ll see if Black Lives Matter based on how the school district deals with this,” Foster said. “We have to be more intentional in our hiring process. There are pain points in that past that need to be addressed, but they need to be addressed with empathy, they need to be discussed with care, they need to be addressed with consideration and they need to be addressed in a way where this is about learning from the past to do things differently in the future. I’m running for the school board so that parents can sit at the table, so that young man’s mother can sit at the table and say, ‘Listen, we are doing the best we can do to move SPASD forward. We are doing the best we can do to have the best educators here to have people that can teach to all students of all backgrounds.”

Foster said he feels the district needs to do more than make a statement.

“You had at least three educated individuals who looked at this. Maybe all three of them were master’s level, at the very least, all three of them were bachelors level and all three of them gave this a thumbs up. It took someone with a sixth-grade education to bring this to his mother and say, ‘Mom, something has to be wrong with this.'”

Foster said if he is elected, he hopes to open the line of communication more between the district and parents to allow for more accountability and transparency.

“A person of color shares with you this is inappropriate. And you basically stiff arm it? Part of the solution is bringing the community in, building that trust. Situations like this eat away at the enamel of trust. Maybe you have something like an anti-racist curriculum task force that approves ideas… not only to make sure that it’s not racist, but that it’s anti-racist.”

School district administrators are still investigating the incident.