BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ -- Bernards Township school administrators will open up the high school’s health curriculum for comment at a town hall-type meeting on Monday night, Nov. 4, in the cafeteria of Ridge High School.

Parents, students, staff and community are encouraged to discuss how additional health class time for 10th graders will be used, how health work will be graded and the option for athletes in season to skip physical education in exchange for a study hall.

This will be the first town hall-type meeting in the district’s “Bernards Township Connect” communication/outreach initiative as part of a five-year district strategic plan approved this fall.

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Future forums are planned for the proposed Ridge High School master schedule changes (scheduled for Nov. 18), the possibility of a later starting time for the school day, study strategies, and pursuing academics without stressing students too much.

Monday will be the first large-scale discussion of the health curriculum since proposed changes were described _ and thoroughly criticized _ at a January school board meeting.

This year, the health curriculum was revised to add three weeks of class time for sophomores. The scope and sequence of curriculum across all grades has been changed, and the quality of assignments was reviewed, said Rich Shello, the supervisor of health and physical education, at the Board of Education meeting on Monday, Oct. 28.

Sophomores traditionally take driver education as part of the health curriculum. That will continue, but three weeks of class time on drugs and alcohol, suicide prevention and safe sex and contraception were added so that students didn’t go more than a year and one-half without addressing important issues in the class, said Shello.

For juniors, topics added to this year’s health curriculum are mental health, male/female anatomy and contraceptives and sexually transmitted infections.

Topics once taught in Grade 12 have been shifted to other grades, he said. The Grade 12 emphasis will be on the challenges as students moving on to college _ mental health, binge drinking, drug abuse, sexual assault and healthy and unhealthy relationships, he said.

More than 30 speakers trooped to the microphone at the Jan. 28 Board of Education meeting to almost universally pan a presentation of revisions.

The district is attempting to address continuing concerns that students are being overstressed by social and school pressures. The district saw two youngsters’ suicides in the 2017-18 school year, multiple alumni drug overdoses and increases in requests for professional guidance help, according to the administration presentation in January. In surveys, students have said they felt pressured to achieve academically, overwhelmed by sport and school demands on time, and conflicted with social pressures.

Many of the speakers’ comments in January centered on the loss of crucial homework time for student-athletes using the so-called Option II in season to skip gym class in favor of a study hall.

Parents also expressed fears more classroom time would add an academic burden and take away needed physical activity.

Students said current health classes were poorly used with outdated movies and unused time for students to fill on their own. Other criticism came for what was alleged to be poorly written health curriculum that was insensitive to teaching about mental and physical illness and disabilities.

Additional class time will bridge a gap of nearly two years without classroom health education. Until this year, students went from the fourth marking period of freshman year to the third marking period year of junior year without health classroom education.

Health class is not designed to be an “academic burden,” Shello said, with “extremely limited homework” and grading reflecting active participation and engagement as opposed to written tests or quizzes. All students take the same classes – no AP or honors work, he said.

Speakers said this Monday night that system may disadvantage shy students.

Timely topics like opioids, vaping and character education will be addressed more deeply and earlier, Shello said. The health curriculum is a “living document continuously evolving as issues in society change,” said Shello. 

Ridge High School is at 268 S. Finley Avenue in Basking Ridge.