Summit Board of Education Votes for Full Opt-Out Option for High School Athletes

Summit Board of Education members Richard Hanley and Katherine Kalin discuss the athletic "opt-out" option. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
Summit Superintendent of Schools Nathan Parker outlines his reasons for opposing the full "opt-out" option. Credits: Bob Faszczewski

SUMMIT, NJ - Sophomore, junior and senior athletes participating in interscholastic sports at Summit High School during the 2014-2015 school year will be able to “opt-out” of all physical education classes, except health, during a season in which they participate in a particular sport, thanks to a resolution adopted Tuesday by a 5-2 vote of the board of education.

The concept of “opt-out,” under discussion by the school body since 2009, was studied by a task force composed of board members, school officials, parents and students and, during the past school year, a one-year pilot program of the option allowed all sophomore, junior and senior students at the high school to decide against participation in one physical education class on a designated day each week. In place of the physical education class, students often chose study halls during which they completed homework assignments or worked on other academic activities.

Sophomore, junior and senior interscholastic athletes, under the pilot program, have been allowed this past year to “opt-out” of an additional four physical education classes on a day of their choosing during the season in which they participated in sports.  However, at Tuesday’s meeting, board members decided that if would be more feasible, administratively, if athletes were allowed to “opt-out” of physical education classes completely during the season during which they play sports.

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In support of the enhanced “opt-out,” board education committee chairman Richard Hanley said all parents, board members and school administrators agreed about the importance of physical education to students.

He added, however, that it is “important to recognize” that New Jersey is one of the few states that require physical education from kindergarten to 12th grade and that no state requires as much as 150 minutes of physical education instruction per week as does the Garden State.

In reality, at Summit High School, he added, students have about 50 percent more time in physical education than that required by the state.

Hanley also noted that surrounding school districts such as Millburn, New Providence and Chatham already offer the full “opt-out” for athletes.

“Our students could use this opportunity to opt-out when they already are getting so much exercise in sports,” he added. “Students also have told us in surveys about the pilot program that those who have opted out are not goofing off but are, in fact, studying.”

Superintendent of Schools Nathan Parker added that, operationally, the enhanced opt-out program could present challenges because:

  • Athletic director Bob Lockhart’s recent study of coaches at the high school showed only 28 percent of them were certified to teach physical education.
  • To have the coaches certify that athletes were meeting state physical education requirements would require coaches to grade athletes and a change in job descriptions.
  • Coaches would have to be polled on whether they wanted to teach physical education and additional training would be required.

Additionally, he said, it would be difficult to fulfill state physical education course requirements by relying on participation in interscholastic sports to do so.

Parker also said surveys on the pilot program showed that only 4.6 to 8 percent of those eligible took advantage of the four additional opt-out days allotted to in-season athletes.  If the program was so popular participation probably should be much higher, he noted.

The superintendent also said he was concerned that allowing athletes to have special privileges would interfere with the positive culture in the high school.

Lockhart said student athletes might provide mentoring and leadership to other students in physical education classes. He added that he was somewhat concerned about athletes having privileged status.

The athletic director also said physical education classes gave his daughter a chance to relieve stress from a heavy course load including many advanced placement classes.

He noted that physical education classes teach many lifetime learning skills that might not be available in competitive sports and coaches had told him they had a more productive relationship with students when they saw them in a classroom setting.

High school principal Paul Sears said the “opt-out” expansion might present a space problem and, for example, the library would have classroom use.  Additional study halls to meet the needs of those opting-out, thus could present a problem.

Board member Debra McCann said that, from her experience, after-school participation in athletics did promote the healthy lifestyles sought by state physical education requirements.

In response to the charge that the “opt-out” expansion would create a privileged class of athletes, she said many student athletes are high achievers academically and are involved in other activities and thus are defined by much more than their involvement as athletes.

Board member James Freeman also challenged Parker’s implication that schools that already offer full opt-out privileges might not be meeting state legal education requirements.

Parker replied that only was his personal assessment from anecdotal information he had received from colleagues in other districts.

Replying to the superintendent’s concerns about coaches grading students for participation in sports, board vice president Katherine Kalin said perhaps a “pass-fail” grading system could be initiated.

Board member Gloria Ron-Fornes, who also voted against the enhanced “opt-out” option, said she shared Parker’s concerns about the operational issues and said perhaps the issue could be shelved until the district was able to assess operation of block scheduling and the proposal could be resurrected next year.

She also said New Jersey “Option 2,” under which athletic “opt-out” programs are allowed could also cause students in theater arts and other programs to request “opt-outs” from those programs.

Kalin replied although that could be possible under state law the board currently was dealing with requests from athletes and could deal with requests from other students if they surfaced later.

Colbert, however, said, the two students on the taskforce did not support the full exemption, adding that the district would be “stretched to the limit” with block scheduling for the upcoming school year and the expanded “opt-out” would put an additional strain on administrators.

Freeman and Hanley, replying to concerns by Parker that possibly, for example, “50 members of the football team might all decide to take the full exemption at the same time,” said that the numbers now suggest only 4 to 8 percent of those eligible would “opt-out,” and the board and district could deal with increased numbers if that became a problem.

Board members voting in favor of the enhanced exemption also generally felt the extra option would promote athletes as a way to relieve student stress caused by AP class, SATs and other forms of stress.

On another matter, board members continued to discuss goals for the school body for this year.

While this involved mainly “tweaking” goals from last year, the board did clarify some of the metrics it would use in measuring the success of the guidance program focused more on college application guidance and on academic achievement.

Assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction Julie Glazer told McCann that her concern about students reading at grade level would be met by monitoring of student progress already done in the school.

Ron-Fornes added that such a metric was “too granular” for a board goal and it could be included in the narrative on how to achieve a goal on academic progress.

At Kalin’s suggestion, the education body also decided to include in the guidance goal targeting increased participation in advanced placement tests and to move metrics for achieving higher scores on AP tests to another goal targeting overall improvements in academic achievement.

Hanley also noted a third goal would aim for a pre-kindergarten-to-12th-grade action plan to make Summit a leader in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) by 2018.

Ron-Fornes said a baseline and benchmark were needed to measure progress on the goal and the administration should be urged to address by this September those items as tools in achieving the goal.

In another action, the board approved the appointment of Janice Tierney as principal of the Wilson and Jefferson Primary Centers.

Tierney, co-principal of Memorial School in Emerson, previously served as a kindergarten teacher and assistant to the principal in Livingston and taught pre-school disabilities classes in Mount Olive. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in special education from Kean University and a master of arts degree in early childhood education from Caldwell College.

Parker also announced that Lawton C. Johnson Middle School Vice Principal Jeffrey Heaney would be leaving to accept a principal’s position in the Warren Township public schools.

The board, following an executive session at the end of the meeting,  approved merit pay for Parker in the amount of $25,107.  "The merit pay reflects Dr. Parker’s accomplishments against 2013-2014 goals in the areas of college acceptances, teacher ratings, facility renovation and construction, block scheduling and full-day kindergarten,” according to district communications specialist Karen Greco.


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