Education

Possible Opt-Out Policy Liberalization for Athletes in Physical Education Classes Leads to Spirited Discussion at Summit School Board Meeting

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Coach and teacher Dave Field discusses physical education and the opt-out policy under consideration by the Summit Board of Education. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
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SUMMIT, NJ - Should participants in junior varsity and varsity athletics at Summit High School be given the option of taking a study hall instead of physical education classes? If so, should the opt-out policy be limited to one day a week or should it be allowed for five days a week?

The Summit Board of Education Policy Committee is confronting these questions and a number of others as it decides whether to change the current policy to meet the demands of some parents and athletes. Supporters of the change believe athletes receive sufficient exercise in their sports activities and the additional study time will enable them to meet the more rigorous education requirements needed to gain admission to the top-tier colleges to which the city’s students seek admission.

Those opposed to the change believe the presence of athletes in classes helps expose them to a greater variety of their fellow students, teaches them lessons not learned on the field and exposes the other students to the leadership abilities of the athletes.

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Current school policy permits three-season varsity athletes to miss one physical education class per week for one of the marking periods and affect approximately 30 Summit High School students, according to Superintendent of Schools Nathan Parker.

In outlining his proposed changes, Parker said the revised policy would “Significantly expand the exemption to include all athletes, regardless of their grade level (other than freshmen) or the number of seasons of participation.”

He added it would allow athletes to opt-out of one physical education class per week during the season of their junior varsity or varsity sport and it would affect approximately 800 students in the high school.

Under the proposal, the student’s physical education teacher still would be responsible for grading the student, students would be able to use the grade to increase their overall grade point average and guidance counselors would not be involved in grade tracking or recording.

“Student athletes who elect the exemption still would be part of the ongoing physical education curriculum, missing only one day out of three-day cycle will keep the student engaged in the curriculum, the student would gain significant benefit from the physical education curriculum and would benefit from four-year team building activities such as Project Adventure,” the superintendent said.

“Research suggests that the brain works better with ongoing physical activity throughout the day," he said. "Physical education breaks up the seven-hour school day."

There would be two possible negatives to the proposal Parker said—students new to Summit would not be included because they need time to adjust to their new surroundings and two study halls per day would not be fully utilized.

State law requires students to partake in at least 152 minutes of instructive physical education per week. However, the law was modified in recent years to allow districts to permit students to opt out of formal physical education classes as long as they are receive the required number of minutes in instructive physical education, according to Parker.

School districts have the discretion to allow this instruction to be done in the setting of an athletic team, he added.

Katherine Kalin, board policy chair, said committee members, while in favor of expanding the policy, were not sure the exemption should be allowed five days per week during an athletic season, as some have suggested.

A one-day opt-out provision would be preferable, she said.

“There is no lack of passion on the part of the board to relieve the homework and study stress from athletes,” she added. "But there are arguments for and against a full exemption.”

Kalin said the board shared the concerns of parents and student athletes who can face six to seven hours of homework after coming home at a late hour from sports practices.

She added, however, there also was a concern that an exemption strictly for athletes would create a “culture of inequity”  in the schools between those allowed to opt-out and those not permitted to do so.

The policy committee head also said sports coaches could possibly shorten practices or not require athletes to stay at games of other teams after their events had finished.

“A feeling also has been expressed that the current physical education experience has not been in the best interests of our students. We want the best and brightest to be teaching our students,” Kalin said.

However, board president George Lucaci, replied that there was “no room for an incremental approach” when revising the opt-out policy.

Although his children currently are not involved in sports, he said they were for many years and he learned that athletic participation caused students to set goals and expand their leadership skills.

Lucaci also said, in considering a revised policy, teachers and coaches were consulted, but not students, and this should be done before a revised policy is formalized.

With five hours of sleep, the board president added, students would not get into the best colleges and if students were not given sufficient study time they should have it and not after getting home from practice at 9 or 10 pm.

For varsity athletes, the school body head said, 45 minutes spent in a physical education class was not time well spent.

He noted school systems like Delbarton, Montclair and Choate have athletic opt-out policies less stringent than Summit’s and they do not have less-qualified physical education instructors.

Policy committee member David Dietze urged his fellow board members to provide better choices that were more productive than compulsory physical education classes.

He agreed with Kalin that there was less support than he would like to see for the high school’s physical education program and students in compulsory physical education classes put them at a disadvantage when applying to top colleges.

Dietze noted he had a friend who is an administrator at a top New England college and she said she did not consider “non-academic” courses such as physical education when choosing which students to admit.

He also said that the money saved if the number of hours required for physical education due to an increased opt-out program were reduced could bring savings that could be used to improve other courses.

“It is very important that this board not get involved in the minutia of the education of our kids,” replied policy committee member Edgar Mokuvos.

Mokuvos urged his fellow school body members to involve parents, children and teachers in getting a fair assessment of the whole picture of what goes on in the schools in order to look at the “broader picture.”

He added, however, that he thought five days a week was too much time to be involved with school sports.

Summit High School student Alex Arias, who will be assisting school board communications specialist, Karen Greco, in reporting on board meetings, said physical education teachers remain with students throughout all four high school years while academic teachers change from year to year.

Arias added, however, that she was concerned cheerleaders, for instance, would not be given the same opt-out privileges and that students in physical education classes would miss out without the leadership provided by athletes in those classes.

Summit high school junior Robbie Walsh, who is involved in three sports, said he liked his physical education classes but he had a heavy course load, including advanced placement classes and needed all the extra study time he could get.

Dave Field, who is a coach and physical education teacher, agreed that student athletes are role models in his classes and he has introduced Project Adventure into his classes to teach students to put trust in partners assigned to them.

Field added physical education classes enabled students to get rid of their angst and other feelings during the school day.

“Everyone should participate in physical education so they can meet the other students in the school,” he said.

Athletic Director Mike Sandor added that, in his 12 years in Summit fewer than 10 parents had asked about the opt-out option and no one had spoken to him about student athletes spending four hours or more at practice.

He said the school board should carefully assess the needs and concerns of the students.

“I believe the physical education program has tremendous value,” Sandor said. “It gives students relief from their academic demands during the day. As for the need to breathe more oxygen—the oxygen breathed during the school day is different than the oxygen breathed on the athletic field.

School Board Secretary Louis Pepe read a letter from two members of the Summit Athletic Boosters speaking as private individuals in which they praised the benefits of athletics but supported physical education classes.

The Boosters members endorsed Parker’s proposal, but said athletes were not alone in their need for more time for studies.

Anthony Akey, an assistant principal at the high school, called upon the board of education to go slowly in making changes to the policy, endorsing incremental changes.

He said the school body should more carefully assess the allocation of student time.

Akey, who said he also had friends involved in college admissions, disagreed with Dietz’ assessment that subjects like physical education and arts did not count as highly as “academic”  subjects in admissions considerations.

Parent James Freeman said if parents were allowed to decide whether or not their children would play instruments or participate in sports in school they should be allowed to “make the call”  on participation in physical education classes.

Allowing students to opt out of physical education, parent, Mary Cummings said, would save them from having to go right from school classes to practice.

Disputing a contention by Parker that only the Chathams and New Providence were among neighboring school districts with an opt-out option, parent Leah Griffith said Millburn has such a policy and, Lucaci pointed out, so does Montclair.

Lucaci noted the board has not yet formally introduced a change in the opt-out policy and, if it is introduced, both a first and second reading would be required before it is adopted.

On another matter, the board also saw a presentation by CHAT, Community of Hispanics in Action for Summit.

World language teacher, Celine Benet, noted though about 90 percent of Americans believed Hispanics to be family-oriented, hard-working and honest, 30 percent of the people believe most are undocumented while only 18 percent are undocumented.

Contrary to population opinion, she said, most Hispanics know the value of learning the English language in getting ahead in America. She among the  third generation of Hispanics to arrive in this country 98 percent learn English.

She added, however, because Hispanic children have such a high respect for teachers as authority figures some teachers see their hesitancy in class as not being interested in education.

Benet urged more communication among the races and urged other community members to get Hispanic parents more involved in the schools and to contact them more frequently by telephone.

The school system would benefit from more telephone announcements in Spanish to these parents, she noted.

She also pointed out that 20 of the 21 Hispanic countries are represented among Summit’s population and Mokuvos is a native of Uruguay, while board vice president, Gloria Ron-Fornes is a native of Cuba.

Benet announced annual Summit’s Hispanic Cultural Day would be held at 2:45 pm on Sunday, October 28, and urged all at Thursday’s school board meeting to attend.

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