Concern over a new hip-hop curriculum that refers to the founding fathers as "old dead white men" has delayed the program's rollout for at-risk students, Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Karl Springer said.
"We're making sure that whatever we do, first, we do no harm," Springer said. "The science behind the concept is wonderful. There may be some things, though, that are inappropriate that we need to be careful about."
Known as Flocabulary, the program is a music-based educational tool that uses raps, rhythms and rhymes to help students learn and memorize everything from vocabulary and English to math and social studies.
About 15 teachers have complained or expressed concern about the rap song lyrics, said Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers.
"I just don't think we were real careful where we deployed it," Allen said. "Not all parts of it are real affective for the more troubled youth."
It is the U.S. history curriculum that has raised concern.
One of the rap songs — "Old Dead White Men" — chronicles the shortcomings of the early leaders in the United States.
Of President James Monroe's tenure, the rap says: "White men getting richer than Enron./ They stepping on Indians, women and blacks./ Era of Good Feeling doesn't come with the facts."
That's followed up by an assessment of President Andrew Jackson's checkered dealings with American Indians.
"Andrew Jackson, thinks he's a tough guy./ Killing more Indians than there are stars in the sky./ Evil wars of Florida killing the Seminoles./ Saying hello, putting Creek in the hell holes./ Like Adolf Hitler he had the final solution./ 'No, Indians, I don't want you to live here anymore.'"
Springer said he was concerned about some of the lyrics, and that's why the district is holding off on the program until it's been evaluated.
Flocabulary CEO and co-founder Alex Rappaport said the lyrics are made intentionally provocative and sometimes humorous to create student engagement among some of the toughest-to-reach students in the nation.
"In general, the purpose of our program is to motivate students, and we often say the enemy here is student apathy," Rappaport said. "We want students to ask questions and challenge assumptions that are made and think critically about historical themes."
Flocabulary is not used as a core textbook but rather as supplemental material that highlights certain academic standards and background knowledge. The rap songs also come with a corresponding guidebook that breaks down the lyrics line by line to explain what they mean.
"Some students are incredibly motivated to go on to read their history textbooks with more passion," Rappaport said.
The Oklahoma City School District has spent about $10,000 so far on the music and corresponding textbooks, Springer said. The Oklahoma City School Board authorized the district to spend up to $97,000 in federal funds on the program.
It was to be mainly used in the district's Extended Education sites, such as juvenile detention centers or hospitals. Springer said before the controversy, it also was to be used at Rogers Middle School.
In June, two of the program's founders visited an Oklahoma City charter school that had purchased the program. They also spoke to district administrators about the benefits of Flocabulary.
The program will begin later this year at Justice Alma Wilson SeeWorth Academy, Superintendent Janet Grigg said.
At SeeWorth, music teacher Henry Rice has been using raps and lyrics for years to help students learn. Last year, his classes wrote, sang and produced a song about the tragedy in Haiti and another about the Holocaust.
"All of our students are 'at promise,'" Grigg said. "They learn in a different way."
Grigg said Flocabulary seemed like a natural fit, and that while the program hasn't been implemented yet, it will be used this year in many courses, especially math.
"We won't be using anything in that program that is offensive," Grigg said. "Our motto is: 'We don't show disrespect, and we don't disrupt learning.'"