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Chester County Press

Scheduling changes for AGIS students concern parents

06/01/2015 06:10PM ● By Steven Hoffman

The Avon Grove School District is moving forward with scheduling changes for the Avon Grove Intermediate School (AGIS) despite the fact that some parents are concerned that children are being deprived of sufficient time for physical education, recess, and lunch during the school day.

A standing-room-only crowd turned out for the May 28 school board meeting at the Avon Grove Intermediate School, and more than a dozen people voiced their opposition to a plan that would establish 90-minute educational blocks for core subjects like language arts and math because, to accommodate these longer educational blocks, the number of physical education classes would be decreased, the health curriculum would be included in the physical education classes, and the amount of time that third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students have for lunch and recess would be trimmed from an hour to about 45 minutes. By implementing these changes, district officials said, students would have more time to focus on core subjects like English, math, social studies, and science.

“It is our firm belief that this is best for the Avon Grove Intermediate School,” Superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese said.

However, parents expressed their reservations about the proposed changes. Some were concerned about the loss of time spent on physical education when childhood obesity is such a major problem. Others argued that opportunities to be active during the school day stimulates brain activity and promotes overall mental and physical wellness. Several people said that the district is placing too much of an emphasis on teaching to standardized tests, and the proposed scheduling change is another example of that.

District officials were adamant that the changes would be beneficial overall to students. The school district has engaged the community in several initiatives, including the updating of the strategic plan, where officials have heard from stakeholders that the academic achievement in the district is good, but not great. The district has undertaken various initiatives, including making financial decisions about the annual budget, that are focused specifically on how to boost academic achievement for students. One of the desired outcomes of the proposed schedule changes at AGIS would certainly be to improve academic achievement.

Assistant superintendent Dr. Margaret Sharp explained that the district held two information sessions for parents to explain some of the changes in the schedule at Avon Grove Intermediate School, and how those changes will benefit students. Sharp said that the district is taking “a systems approach to increasing the learning opportunities for all students.”

Avon Grove Intermediate School principal Jeffrey Detweiler said that several recurring themes emerged during the recent information sessions, most notably that parents were concerned that children wouldn’t have adequate time to buy and eat lunch, and the loss of recess time and physical education classes would be detrimental to students.

Detweiler said that parents made it clear that they didn’t think test scores should be the motivating factor behind changes to the Avon Grove Intermediate School schedule.

Some of these same sentiments were expressed by about a dozen people during public comment of the May 28 school board meeting.

One resident said that decreasing physical education is the opposite of what the district should be doing since being active is such an important part of a healthy lifestyle.

Jeffrey Whitmer, a health and physical education teacher at AGIS, said that students learn valuable lessons in health and physical education classes, and the amount of time that these teachers have to make a difference in the lives of students shouldn't be reduced. As an example, he mentioned a lesson that he taught recently about bike safety, which could help a student avoid a serious injury.

Olivia McGarvey, a ninth-grader, recalled that physical education was an important part of the school day when she was the age of students at AGIS.

“That’s my mental break every single day,” McGarvey said of physical education classes. “I would go home and talk about it because it was the highlight of my day.”

Despite the comments about the benefits of physical education, Marchese reiterated the administration's position that the proposed changes would benefit the students. Marchese added that the response from the community illustrates the strong desire that everyone has to put children first.

“The administration heard a lot of good information and feedback from our parents,” he said, explaining that the administration still supported the proposed changes for the 2015-2016 school year.

The school board did not need to approve the proposed schedule change at AGIS.

“The board doesn’t vote on that change. It’s an administrative change,” school board president Brian Gaerity explained. He added that the board would be voting on the reduction in staffing that would coincide with the schedule change—five full-time health and physical education positions were being eliminated.

When it came time for that vote, several board members talked about why they were supportive of the administration's plan, even if some parents were unhappy with it.

Board member Bonnie Wolff talked about how the additional educational time—up to one hour a day—would help students as they advance up the grades. The extra time spent on core subjects would pay dividends for the rest of a student's academic career, which is important because state standards are only becoming more rigorous. Wolff talked about how even very good biology students struggle to pass the Keystone exam on the subject because it is so challenging.

Gaerity also talked about how the proposed changes should help the students become more academically prepared, while also refuting the idea that the changes are being made to improve standardized test scores.

“This change is not driven by test scores,” Gaerity said. “It’s to make sure that our kids are academically prepared so that they can go on to the middle school and high school. These things are critical.”

Regarding the concerns of some parents that 90-minute blocks of educational time will be too long for the youngsters, Gaerity said that he has trust that the district's teachers will “do a terrific job of making a class interesting and fun.”

Board member Patrick Walker, who has two children who will be affected by the scheduling changes, said that while he had some reservations about the proposal, he was still willing to support it.

“While I don’t agree with the entire schedule… I think the changes are good,” Walker said. “I think the good outweighs the bad.”

The board voted 6-1 in favor of the reduction in staffing, with Edward Farina being the lone vote against it.

Marchese, Gaerity, and Walker each separately talked about how, once the new schedule goes in place in September, the district would be responsive to any issues that arise.

“If something is wrong, we will fix it,” Gaerity promised.

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