Utah school board gets earful after dropping middle school arts and health requirements

Supporters laud the increased flexibility for schools and students while opponents warn of decreased access to creative and active classes. <br>

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Seventh and eighth-graders at West Lake Junior High School run a mile around the track Wednesday, September 20, 2017.

When Melanie Provost began junior high, she was overweight and terrified of the requirement to enroll in gym class.

But before long, Provost said, she discovered an aptitude for basketball and volleyball that, combined with information from also-required health and nutrition courses, led her to eventually compete in varsity high school sports and attend college on a full-ride athletic scholarship.

"All of my preconceived ideas about PE were changed in that year,” said Provost, now a gym teacher at Sand Ridge Junior High School. “I lost 50 pounds in ninth grade and changed my life forever.”

Provost was among the attendees at a special hearing of the Utah Board of Education Wednesday evening, during which speakers spent more than three hours asking the board to either uphold, delay or rescind a policy making classes on health, art, physical education and career awareness optional for middle school students.

The policy also removes minimum credit requirements for core subjects like math, English and science, leaving up to school district administrators whether, and to what extent, a student is required to enroll in and complete individual subjects.

While the move was praised by advocates of local education control, others questioned whether school districts would continue to offer a full catalog of costly art, health and gym courses if not mandated at the state level.

The policy also has generated concerns that limiting health education could exacerbate Utah’s already high youth suicide rate.

“Schools tend to cut the optional in favor of the required,” said Crystal Young-Otterstrom, executive director of the Utah Cultural Alliance, “because our public schools are underfunded.”

The hearing was requested by five groups on both sides of the issue, including the Utah Cultural Alliance, the Utah Education Association [UEA], Uintah School District, the Utah Democratic Party Education Caucus and a group of parents represented by Alpine Board of Education member Wendy Hart.

Hart spoke in favor of the new rule, arguing that the prior state requirements had left districts with limited ability to respond to the needs of individual students.

She offered examples of students with allergies, cognitive impairment and special education needs being forced into unproductive classroom settings, or children with private academic interests having to enroll in redundant coursework at the cost of other school interests. 

“This rule shows trust in our local school boards and the parents they represent,” she said.

Christy Nerdin, principal of Uintah Middle School, said her district is excited about the added flexibility allowed by the state school board policy and the opportunity to develop a district strategy for middle school education.

Rather than weaken arts education, she said making classes like band, choir or visual arts optional would enhance those subjects by filtering out uninterested pupils.

“You would have students in there who are passionate about it,” Nerdin said. “You won’t have as many problem students who are forced to be there if they don’t want to be.”

Other rural school district representatives were critical of the changes. Tintic School District Superintendent Kodey Hughes said his district is more susceptible to changes in student preference than his Wasatch Front counterparts.

If interest in band or the arts wanes among a particular cohort of children, he said, staffing pressures would require him to excuse teachers who may or may not come back when the popularity of band or choir surges.

“We can‘t replace them like our counterparts on the Wasatch Front,” he said.

Hughes said that statewide course requirements provide consistency for rural administrators to maintain their budgets and faculty rosters.

“Local control often means lack of support,” he said.

Other speakers emphasized the subtext of the new policy, suggesting that the Utah Board of Education no longer deems health, art and gym to be critical components of an educational experience.

“When these classes aren’t required, it sends a very clear signal to parents and to [school districts] that its not important,” said Steve Hendricks, band director at Davis High School. “We don’t want to devalue the arts. We don’t want to devalue physical education. We don’t want to devalue any of these subjects that are so important.”

Sara Jones, government relations director for the UEA, questioned what the state school board’s criteria were for making health and art optional while other subjects, like history, remained a required course for all students.

The UEA recommended the new policy be delayed to allow for additional debate and discussion.

“Where was the debate about each course?” Jones asked. “The decision appears to be arbitrary.”

Mark Cluff, a former member of the Utah Board of Education and legislative director for Agency Based Education, commended the state school board for the policy, adding that there should be no mandated course requirements at a state level.

School districts should be free to govern themselves, he said, while students and their parents should be empowered to choose their own academic paths.

“Education must be based in choice,” Cluff said, “and not compulsion.”

While a quorum of the Utah Board of Education was present, hearing procedures dictated that they only listen to speakers, rather than engage in discussion, debate or votes.

The middle school policy was adopted in August with a 9-6 vote and, unless the board intervenes to reconsider, will be in effect for the second half of the current academic year.