Physical Education Exemption Examined, Rejected at Madison School Board Meeting

Athletic and Health Director Sean Dowling presents the no-exemption recommendation. Credits: Lisa Woolfson
Superintendent of Schools Michael Rossi introduces the new supervisors. Credits: Liz Keill
Madison High School Principal Gregory Robertson addresses the board. Credits: Liz Keill
MADISON, NJ – A lengthy discussion at the Tuesday, Feb. 26, Board of Education meeting centered on a presentation in relation to exempting high school athletes from physical education classes.
“We’ve never investigated the policy to this extent,” High School Principal Gregory Robertson told the board. “We surveyed 40 schools and spoke with four principals and various professional organizations. We’ve come to the conclusion that there is value in physical education.” He added, however, that there are areas that could be improved and understands why parents have sound reasons to request exemptions. “I hope we can clear this up and show why it’s necessary.”  Robertson said he entered the issue with an open mind.  “At the conclusion, we decided this is not in the best interest of our students.”
Sean Dowling, District Supervisor of Athletics, Health and Physical Education, said, “We feel it’s in the best interest of the students to take physical education. It benefits the whole child.” He cited concerns about obesity and had talked to students, most of whom, he said, are “very pro phy ed, I’d say the overwhelming majority.” In addition, the curriculum provides “equal opportunity” for all students. Dowling emphasized the value of physical education in relieving stress, team building, problem solving, conflict resolution, compassion and caring. Such opportunities as Project Adventure help students get together with others they might not do otherwise, he said.
The committee consulted with schools in Randolph, Jefferson and Cranford. They were told at one that the exemption was “a bookkeeping nightmare and they got rid of it.” Students became bored with study halls, he said, and asked to be in phys ed classes instead. A major concern, Dowling said, is that the exemption opens a “Pandora’s box” with every organization asking for exemptions. He noted that students in band, musical theatre and other areas also put in long hours, not just athletes.   Health education has taken on a bigger role, he said, with emphasis on nutrition, fitness, human sexuality and wellness.

Board member Linda Gilbert said that initially she was in favor of exemptions, recounting her daughter’s long hours on the swimming team.  But when she fast-forwarded 10 years to her son’s high school experience, the curriculum had changed. Now, students are offered classes in Pilates, yoga, dance and other activities.
Board member Shade Grahling read a letter from the Curriculum Committee, supporting the recommendation that there be no waiver. “We took the issue very seriously,” she said. “It would be complicated to administer and addresses a relatively small portion of students.”
Robertson said the block scheduling, with a common lunch time, has opened up the day and helps the entire student body.  
One parent asked about a pass/fail option on a voluntary basis.  “We can’t create policies for pockets of kids,” Robertson said. “I want to call a spade a spade. We can’t work with specific groups, like funneling labs into lunch. We decided not to go that route.” He said he hoped students would feel comfortable coming to him or other administrators if they have concerns.

Another issue arose about a proposed Central Avenue School trip. Superintendent of Schools Michael Rossi said the board approved a two-day trip for the fifth grade class, assuming they would come back at the end of each day. But parents had the understanding this would be an overnight trip, but had no additional information. Rossi said, “That has not been approved.” He said he would speak with the teachers to clarify the matter. “This didn’t go right and we need to fix the process,” he said. One parent suggested that school trips be more consistent among the elementary schools. “This has come up in the past,” Grahling said. Rossi said the matter would be addressed again. 

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