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Textbooks’ Backers Find Success in Fight to Keep Them in Use : Education: Readers aimed at children in elementary school have been criticized as violent and promoting satanism.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite strong protests by parents and conservative church groups, a number of California school boards have voted in recent weeks to retain the unconventional elementary-grade reading series “Impressions.”

Critics say the Impressions readers, for kindergarten through sixth grade, are anti-religious, are preoccupied with death and violence and teach disrespect for parental and other authority, among other charges.

But the series’ defenders argue that the new curriculum is intended to turn youngsters into readers by exposing them to interesting stories, instead of concentrating on spelling, grammar and sentence structure, although these are taught, too, with supplementary materials.

Last fall critics persuaded three school boards in Southern California and one in Northern California to reject the books.

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But since then, confrontations have been going the other way.

In February, Redondo Beach voted to retain the Impressions series. More recently, other school boards, including Yucaipa’s in San Bernardino County, have either adopted the series or refused to remove it from schools that were already using the books.

“I think that’s a battle we’ve won,” said State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who supports the books strongly because he believes they are more likely to interest children in reading than the old “Dick and Jane” approach.

Impressions, which was published originally by Holt, Rinehart and Winston (now owned by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), was one of 17 sets of materials adopted by the State Board of Education for the new California elementary school English and language arts curriculum in 1988.

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The series is used in about 100 California school districts, according to state Department of Education officials.

Impressions is an anthology of stories, fables, poems and other kinds of writing that seeks to stimulate children’s imaginations and to encourage students to think independently. Witches, goblins and other monsters populate some stories. People are turned into pigs or snakes or toads, and they are beheaded or disposed of in other violent ways.

Officials in many districts that are using the books report that children love them.

“There are all kinds of positive indicators,” said Guy Emanuele, superintendent of schools in the New Haven Unified School District in the East San Francisco Bay community of Union City. “Kids are reading more, they’re taking out more library books, they’re more interested in what they’re reading.”

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But the books are anathema to many parents, especially those affiliated with conservative churches.

“This is disgusting stuff,” said the Rev. Robert Simonds, president of the National Assn. of Christian Educators, which has been supporting many of the anti-Impressions protests.

“The predominant themes contained in this series are violence, degradation and death; negativity and despair; witchcraft and animism; fear and horror.”

In the first few clashes, the anti-Impressions’ point of view prevailed.

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In Hacienda La Puente Unified and in East Whittier, the books were removed from use in grades 1-6. In Castro Valley, the series had been adopted for use in grades 1-5 next year but the school board changed its mind in the face of a vigorous protest.

“These people come out of the woodwork and they scare you,” said Marilys Tognetti, assistant superintendent of schools in Dixon, a small agricultural community near Sacramento. “If you’re the parent of a first-grader and these people tell you these books will introduce your child to drugs and satanism, that’s pretty frightening.”

But recently, school boards have been rejecting the protests and have been voting for the Impressions series.

“We have finally begun to stem the tide,” said Michael Hudson, Western director of People for the American Way, an organization that monitors First Amendment issues.

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“Everywhere we have been successful, teacher-parent support has been critical,” he added.

The Redondo Beach City School District, which uses Impressions as its basic reading text, was among the first to say no to organized efforts to shelve the books.

On Feb. 6, before a standing-room-only audience of parents, trustees voted unanimously to retain the text, despite pressure from a coalition of conservative Christians led by activists from a local church.

District Supt. Nick Parras said that, in the aftermath of the vote, about a dozen parents asked that their children be given a different reading text. But he said that as time passed, most of those parents have changed their minds and now all but five or six children are using the Impressions books.

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In one community after another, groups of parents and teachers have formed to back Impressions, although this sometimes has meant spending hundreds of hours on the issue and engaging in scalding public debates.

“At the first meeting I attended, a person I knew called me a ‘satanist’ and it just built from there,” said Paula Sullivan, one of the organizers of a pro-Impressions parents group in Dixon.

At that meeting of about 100 people in February, Sullivan said, all but a handful wanted the Dixon school board to remove the books from the two elementary schools where they were being used.

But Sullivan and Tognetti, who called Impressions the “best program available in the United States today,” helped to organize a strong campaign of support. In April the board voted 5 to 0 to retain the series.

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Many local school boards and parent groups have had outside help--from state schools chief Honig, the California Teachers Assn., parent-teacher associations, the California School Boards Assn. and People for the American Way.

“What concerns us is that this is a well-orchestrated attempt by right-wing radicals to preach censorship, impose their religious beliefs and undermine the public school system in the process,” said CTA President Ed Foglia.

Although opponents of Impressions have lost the last few skirmishes, they still believe the war can be won.

In Yucaipa, where the Board of Education voted 4 to 1 to retain the series, after an especially bitter controversy, an attempt is being made to recall the four school board members who voted for Impressions.

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In Dixon, the Western Center for Law and Religious Freedom has filed suit in Yolo County Superior Court charging that decisions favorable to Impressions were made at secret meetings, in violation of the state’s open-meeting law.

There is talk of another lawsuit, perhaps in Winters, charging the school board with promoting a “state religion,” namely sorcery, witchcraft and satanism, by approving the books.

Rev. Simonds said local school boards were voting for Impressions because “they don’t listen to parents, they take their protest petitions and throw them in the wastebasket.”

But he added, “I know 25 California communities that are organizing for the first time, to get a school board that is responsive to parents.”

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Times staff writer Shawn Hubler in Los Angeles contributed to this article.

‘IMPRESSIONS’: PRO, CON

School boards that have rejected the “Impressions” reading series, in one form or another, in recent months:

Castro Valley Unified.

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East Whittier.

Hacienda La Puente Unified.

San Juan Capistrano.

Boards that have adopted “Impressions” or have voted to retain the books in face of a challenge:

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Dixon Unified.

Hayward Unified.

Lincoln Unified (North Stockton).

New Haven Unified (Union City).

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Redondo Beach.

Ripon Unified.

Winters Unified.

Yucaipa Joint Unified.

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