EAST BRUNWICK, NJ - The rollout of an "evolved" set of elective courses available to students entering Hammarskjold Middle School in East Brunswick has caused an uproar among parents who see the move as a diminsihment of the arts program, and the Theater Arts program especially. Parents, students, and staff members gathered at last week's Board of Education meeting to speak out and protest the change.
According to Superintendent Dr. Victor Valeski, the change to the elective program, annonced to parents in a letter from Principal Dr. Michael Gaskell last week, was mostly directed by a need to update the Hammarskjold math program which has not been fully revised since the 1990's. The change in middle school scheduling would increase the time allotted for math, thereby impacting that remaining for cycle courses in the arts. "Test scores are not the problem," said Valeski, who presented an argument based on the advanced level of computer literacy that influences how students learn currently in the "Ipad before potty-training generation." He stated that there was a need to further "support the transition from elementary school to middle school."
Students in East Brunswick's elementary schools have 180 hours of math built into their instructional year. In Middle School, the number drops to 120 hours per year. (The South Brunswick Public Schools have the same instructional time in Grades 6 and 7.) However, the demands for higher-level math instruction at Churchill are increasing, with advanced-level courses being offering in Grades 8 and 9.
Valeski said that the district was considering purchasing a product (a math curriculum) that could not be accommodated "in the current time frame." Said Valeski, "New math programs cannot be delivered in the amount of time allotted." So where will the time come from for the new math program? Ostensibly, it will come from a revision of the popular cycle course program at Hammarskjold. Electives, like STEM and Band, which remain unaffected.
Valeski began the meeting by emphatically stating, "It has not been proposed or recommended by the Board of Education to cut the the Arts." However, curricularly-distinct programs like Theater Arts and Visual Arts would be combined in a new format that would "integrate all disciplines and create an authentic learning experience." He presented a PowerPoint that illustrated the new choice available to students.
All of this change comes about after parents had already received a scheduling request and signed up for courses in the fall expecting the established cycle courses to be part of the class day. Former Board of Education member Curt Philipczak said during the public portion that the change had "created confusion among the parents regarding scheduling." "Basically," he said, "If you take band, you can't take Theater Arts."
The official portion of the meeting lasted seven minutes, yet the public portion added more than two hours to the evening's session as concerned and impacted parents, teachers, and students stood their ground for the availablity of the arts at Hammarskjold. Strengthening their arguments were the lack of clarity presented by Valeski and the BOE about just what the new math program was, what the new arts elective would contain, and how teachers would create a class that may be beyond their expertise. Parents wanted to know if the teachers would travel to various classrooms or if their would be a dedicated space for the arts, like the tradiitonal art room.
Deborah Zitomer, a 20-year educator, called the move "counter-intuitive, outmoded, and ineffectual" and blamed high-stakes testing for prompting the move. "Are we planning to return to a time when we are just going back to the basics?" she said. A move that Valeski and the Board see as forward-looking, Zitomer sees as a return to math and language arts, upon which students are tested, as forming the majority of their learning time.
Todd Simmens, BOE member, supported the idea of "integrated disciplines" in the arts. Simmens said, "PARCC is a waste of time, but ILA and math prepare students for the SAT and ACT" which are taken by most EBHS students. He also noted that Hammarskjold must also address the health program, as the school does not currently meet state requirements.
Music teachers like Michelle DaGrosa spoke about their professional choices to seek work in East Brunswick due to the excellent music and arts programs. Elementary band director Kaitlyn Nichols called East Brunswick "an oasis in arts education."
Eric Stern said that the hybrid class may be more time-practical but that the "whole would be less than the sum of its parts." He added that he felt "devalued as an educator" because the scheduling problem was laid on the arts programs.
Hallie Eisenberg, actress, EBHS graduate, and sister of prominent performer Jesse Eisenberg, read some remarks by Margot Eisenberg, founder of the Hammarskjold theater program 21 years ago. Eisenberg started the program when she volunteered to offer an after-school elective that grew into a full-time theater class.
A member of the East Brunswick High School Drama Club, presented the Board with a petition signed by 1,800 EB residents who were protesting the change and the reduction of time allotted for Theater Arts.
Dr Wilbur Pam asked, "What is this Creative Arts class? I am surprised you moved ahead without defining the class." He also discussed the developmental impact arts programs have on children and their learning.
At the conclusion of the meeting, BOE President Vicki Becker discussed the "careful, thoughtful" decision made by the Board to revise the cycle course and math programs. However, she admitted that the program may have been rolled out too quickly. "The arts are an emotional and personal subject," Becker said, referring to those who were moved to speak at the meeting.
The Board then retired to a closed session.