Hawaiʻi is the first state expected to drop the controversial online learning platform, Acellus, following a OneZero investigation into the product and its creator, Roger Billings. But while hundreds of schools across the islands will likely stop using Acellus, countless other school districts in the United States continue to use the platform, a OneZero review found.
On Friday, OneZero published findings that Acellus was connected to a religious “cult” where Billings reportedly perpetrated and encouraged physical and emotional violence, unpaid labor, and child sexualization. Hours later, Hawaii’s Board of Education issued a memo recommending that Hawaii’s hundreds of public schools phase out Acellus by the end of the 2020–2021 school year, according to Civil Beat.
A Popular Online Learning Platform Was Actually Created by an Underground Religious ‘Cult’
The creator of Acellus and the ‘cult’s leader has been accused of violence and abuse
Catherine Payne, chairperson of the Hawaiʻi Board of Education, wrote in the memo that “the selection of Acellus was a mistake made in the midst of chaos brought on by the pandemic but a mistake nonetheless.” She urged the state’s Department of Education to send a letter to families using Acellus acknowledging the platform was chosen “in haste without appropriate vetting.” The department’s superintendent Christina Kishimoto issued a letter to parents on Tuesday informing them that schools would be transitioning off of Acellus, Education Week reported.
The full board will vote on Payne’s proposal on Thursday. The state’s Department of Education has not objected to the recommendation, Civil Beat reported.
Acellus products are used by thousands of students across the nation. One such product, the Acellus Learning Accelerator, offers hundreds of courses from World History to AP Physics, and is currently used by 80,000 Hawaiʻi public school students at an estimated cost of $2 million, according to Civil Beat and Education Week. Another, the Acellus Academy, is an online K-12 private school. Both are operated by the International Academy of Science, a nonaccredited, nonprofit institution founded by Billings in 1988.
OneZero’s reporting found that Acellus was rooted in a fundamentalist Mormon offshoot group called the Church of Jesus Christ in Zion, led by Billings. Interviews with 12 individuals close to the church, including eight former members, reported accounts of physical and mental violence, child abuse, and the deliberate separation of families under Billings’ leadership. Many former members of the church described it to OneZero as a “cult.” Some former members told OneZero they were coerced into working at Billings’ other technology companies and were not paid.
“The selection of Acellus was a mistake made in the midst of chaos.”
Payne’s memo does not mention claims about Billings or Acellus’ roots in the Church of Jesus Christ in Zion. Rather, the memo focuses on the quality of Acellus’ curriculum.
Parents and teachers in Hawaiʻi have protested the platform since August when they began to notice material they perceived as racist, sexist, and otherwise inappropriate. Since then, parents have documented numerous Acellus lessons they felt were unfit for children.
One multiple-choice question asked if Osama Bin Laden was the leader of the “Towelban.” A vocabulary course used the letter “X” for “Xenophobia.” A lesson obtained by OneZero asked students to choose which image matched the following statement: “Pam has a cat. Pat has a rag.” One of the answers included an image of two children: one wearing a cat mask, the other wearing what appeared to be a turban.
The memo also criticizes the Hawaiʻi Department of Education for a “cursory review” of Acellus in July that, despite its mostly negative evaluation, did not affect the authorities’ overall decision to select Acellus as a vendor, according to a copy of the review published by Civil Beat.
“Concerns about Acellus from the public include racist and culturally insensitive content and lack of rigor, and the fact that the Department needed to set up a webpage dedicated to Acellus with a link to a ‘Controversial Content Concern Form’ is telling,” Payne’s memo states. (Following complaints from parents that Acellus contained inappropriate material, the Hawaiʻi Department of Education created a Google Form where it encouraged people to submit “concerning content.”)
Though it’s very likely that Acellus will be dropped by the Hawaiʻi Department of Education after Thursday’s vote, it’s not a certainty. “Until the recommendation is taken up at Thursday’s Board meeting, I can’t say what will happen and/or if the recommendation will pass as currently written,” Nanea Kalani, a spokesperson for the Hawaiʻi Department of Education, told OneZero on Monday.
Payne did not respond to OneZero’s multiple requests for comment.
“The fact that the Department needed to set up a webpage dedicated to Acellus with a link to a ‘Controversial Content Concern Form’ is telling.”
Additionally, OneZero independently identified 66 schools and school districts that appear to be using Acellus, according to their websites. OneZero contacted their respective principals and superintendents, asking whether they intended to evaluate their contracts with Acellus in light of our reporting. One school and five school districts responded to OneZero’s request for comment.
Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools and California’s Pasadena Unified School District told OneZero they are currently reconsidering their use of Acellus.
Craig Broeren, superintendent of Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools, told OneZero that whether it maintains its contract with Acellus “is to be determined.” According to Broeren, the district has spent $32,209.75 on Acellus licenses between July 2018 and July 2020.
“It is important to note that until roughly 1 to 2 weeks ago, we had not heard of any concerns from parents or staff regarding Acellus and what is outlined in the story you shared,” Broeren said. “Recently… a parent did raise some concerns based on what they had seen in a news article on the internet. That did cause members of our administrative team to begin a thorough evaluation of the program.” Until that point, the district had only been aware of issues related to the “rigor” of Acellus, and had been working to supplement the program in those cases.
“As alluded to in my response above, we will continue a thorough evaluation of the program and will make changes when and if necessary,” Broeren added.
Missouri’s Meramec Valley R-III School District told OneZero it had no plans to reconsider its use of Acellus following reports of inappropriate content and OneZero’s findings regarding Billings and his church.
Meramec Valley R-III School District uses Acellus for K-6 students enrolled in remote learning. According to the district’s superintendent John Mulford, it began using Acellus this August, and spent $10,209.50 on licenses for the 2020–2021 school year. Mulford told OneZero, “If concerns are identified throughout the course of this year, the district will look to go a different direction.”
“We were partners with Acellus for only 1 school year and that partnership ended as of June 2020 and we are no longer affiliated with their program.”
Regarding OneZero’s published findings, Mulford added: “As you are well aware, news articles are published [sic] regularly that make claims on a variety of issues. The information in this story by itself would not warrant any abrupt change in our partnership for the current year. We will however continue to monitor this situation and make changes if appropriate. We will also monitor the curriculum for the biases mentioned in the story. It is important to add that none of our teachers/students/parents have conveyed experiencing any of the biases reported in this story.”
Kentucky’s Paintsville High School and Illinois’ Downers Grove Grade School District 58 said they no longer use Acellus as their partnerships with the company had recently ended.
“We were partners with Acellus for only 1 school year and that partnership ended as of June 2020 and we are no longer affiliated with their program,” Paintsville High School Principal Tiffany Austin told OneZero.
While Hawaii’s seemingly imminent decision to drop the platform is a loss for Acellus — the state paid more than $225,000 on Acellus licenses for 9,040 students over the summer — it represents just a fraction of the company’s user base. Tax filings show the International Academy of Science reported more than $9 million in revenue in 2017.
“We are working to move forward in a manner that supports our students in the least disruptive manner possible, and we look forward to sharing our transition plan with the Board,” Kalani told OneZero.
Payne said her recommendation to drop Acellus by the end of the school year was based on the department’s review. It has yet to be released.