Vern Henshaw

AMERICAN FORK — The superintendent of Alpine schools is defending his use of the word "extremist" when describing parents who became involved in the debate over the district's mathematics program.

Some parents say they were offended when Alpine Superintendent Vern Henshaw called them extremists in the districtwide debate over "Investigations in Number, Data, and Space." But Henshaw said Monday that his comments were justified if understood in context.

Henshaw used the word "extremist" on April 4 during a discussion with Orem City Council about new elementary textbooks that will be used next year in Alpine District schools in lieu of the program commonly called "Investigations Math."

"And I'm sorry, I'll just say, you may have received e-mails from extremists and ... I'll say that publicly because I've talked to them personally and let them know that I thought they were extreme and that was OK if they wanted to be extreme, but I wasn't," Henshaw told the mayor and City Council. "And nor do I think that the great majority of Alpine District patrons are."

A recording of Henshaw's comments were posted on the Web site of Highland resident Oak Norton, a longtime critic of the district's math program.

"I think there's a big interest because there are thousands of parents in the school district who are very upset," Norton said, referring to Investigations Math.

But Henshaw, when contacted Monday, said he never intended to label a person an extremist but rather used the word to refer to a person's position on math education.

Math extremists, Henshaw said, are people who want 100 percent of math instruction devoted to one textbook program, such as Saxon Math.

In comparison, the superintendent said, is the school district's most recent position on math education, which Henshaw calls "comprehensive and balanced" because it involves more than one textbook program to address different learning needs.

Norton, however, doesn't buy the superintendent's explanation.

"Calling us extreme when they took the extreme action to begin with is why people are upset," he said.

In 2000, the Utah County school district began using Investigations Math, which attempted to follow standards identified in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, such as emphasizing deep understanding of math over rote memorization.

Parents in northern Utah County, however, were upset that their children were no longer taking timed tests or learning traditional algorithms.

The district made a series of concessions to integrate more traditional math education into a program that centered around Investigations Math.

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Next year, however, parents, teachers and principals in each of the district's 46 elementary schools will get to choose between two new math textbooks. The schools may continue to use Investigations Math as a supplement.

"I think this is really good, to know that in fact there is local, grass-roots input (in math), even to the extent that one elementary school may be different than another in their approach," Orem Mayor Jerry Washburn said during the April 4 meeting. His comments were on the tape.

But that response is what frustrates Don Baker, who enrolled his three children in charter schools in large part because of Alpine's math program.

"Nobody really called (Henshaw) on this extremist comment," Baker said.


E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com