Parents scold school administrators for cutting elementary PE days

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By SHELLY WILKISON

Parents accused school administrators June 8 of attempting to exclude them from what they called a controversial decision to reduce class time for elementary physical education from five to three days per week beginning this fall.

Liberty Hill Elementary Principal Melanie Herbst has come under fire in recent weeks for reducing the number of PE class days due to overcrowded conditions. She said the elementary gym is only half the size of a regular gym and even with three supervising adults, isn’t equipped to safely handle class sizes of 80 and above.

“The idea came from class size, safety of the kids and maintaining the quality of our PE program,” Herbst told parents during a meeting Monday.

About 25 parents attended the meeting called by Herbst in response to criticism on social media and a petition circulated via Facebook demanding the decision be undone. While many at the meeting admitted they did not have a child at LHES, they were critical of Herbst and district administrators suggesting parents should have been consulted before a decision was made. In recent weeks, more than 100 people signed an online petition in opposition, which was started by Valerie Zapien and circulated through Facebook.

“Hundreds of decisions are made daily,” Herbst said. “I’m trusted as the leader on the campus to make decisions. After gathering all the information, we realized we can’t continue to do what we’re doing safely.”

Liberty Hill Elementary ended the school year last week with 558 students in pre-kindergarten through first grade. Herbst said when school starts in August, that number is projected to top 600.

“This decision was made for the safety of your kids,” Herbst said. “I won’t apologize for thinking ahead, and I won’t apologize for this decision.”

According to state law, elementary students are to receive a minimum of 135 minutes of physical education per week. Herbst said the school will continue to meet that requirement, and even exceed it with physical activity breaks throughout the day.

“We know physical activity is important to our students,” said Herbst. “I want to see active movement in the classroom.”

She said five-minute activity breaks throughout the day will allow students to do Zumba and other cardio activities along with “Go Noodle” videos. While the interactive instruction doesn’t replace a PE class, it does keep students active in the classroom.

“The activity breaks will give students more minutes of physical activity than with PE alone,” said LHISD Curriculum Director Claudeane Braun.

On days when students are not in PE, they will be in music or art class, administrators say.

While Herbst and district officials explained why the decision was made to reduce PE class days, the majority of parents who spoke Monday said they should have been involved in the decision-making process.

Zapien argued that the community should have been consulted through the school district’s School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), which she claimed “is not being run the way it’s supposed to.” Zapien is a member of SHAC.

SHAC is an advisory committee that school districts are required to have in place to “assist the district in ensuring that local community values are reflected in the district’s health education instruction,” according to Sec. 28.004 of the Texas Education Code. The council is required to meet four times annually. A majority of its membership should be parents.

Braun said SHAC is an advisory group created to see that the values of the community are incorporated into the health curriculum. The decision to reduce instructional time for safety reason does not impact the curriculum.

“We use SHAC for changes in the curriculum,” Braun told The Independent, adding that the district seeks input from the committee on textbook adoption for health classes and human sexuality. “We are active in SHAC when we need to be, when there is a purpose.

“This is not a curriculum issue. It’s about how we arrange the day to fit the needs with the facilities we have,” Braun said. “Nothing is changing with the curriculum.”

While administrators expressed their disappointment that the issue “blew up” in social media before they had the opportunity to communicate with parents, Zapien suggested administrators were trying to keep the decision a secret.

“You never intended for it (information about a schedule change) to get out,” Zapien said.

Herbst explained that an email she sent to school staff asking for their input on what was clearly marked as a “Draft” plan somehow found its way to the public where the issue was then “blown up” on social media.

“Point at me if you want to point at someone,” said Herbst. “I’m new, so I went to the experts — the teachers. This was clearly marked as a draft, and it was taken and blown up on Facebook. I’m offended that before it blew up, not one person (parent) called me with a question.”

“We had a plan for talking to parents,” Braun said. “It blew up when a petition went out. We spent a lot of time looking at all the options and what was best for students.

“Coming to Melanie or me would have been an appropriate first step,” added Braun.

“We feel disrespected now. You say you have it all under control, and that’s that. That makes me want to leave (Liberty Hill ISD) because you’re going to be like everyone else,” Zapien said, referring to reducing PE class time.

“This is a significant change in the curriculum for our kids,” one parent suggested. “You should have come to the community to discuss options.”

“You (administrators) don’t want to butt heads with the community,” another parent said. “Don’t cut us out. This is not going away. When this (meeting) is over, we will email, call, a lot of people are not here. We will figure out what we need to do to make it stop. This is going to be a fight to the end.”

Some parents inquired as to the options that were considered before the decision was made to reduce instructional days. Others made suggestions that Herbst appeared to have already researched.

One suggestion was to move the children to the gym at the former Intermediate School campus. Herbst said the logistics involved in walking five and six-year-old children that far would create new problems.

Another suggested adding portable buildings where PE class could be taught.

The school is already getting another portable building when school starts that will be needed for classroom space.

Another parent suggested using the cafeteria for PE, but Herbst explained that it is in use for food service from breakfast until early afternoon.

A former high school PE teacher compared her experience with teen-agers saying that she was able to manage a class of 75 students with assistance from teacher aids. She suggested dividing the PE classes and sending some outside if the gym was full.

Herbst reminded parents of the extreme heat in August and September.

Zapien said a recent fundraiser at Bill Burden Elementary raised $24,000 for the playground. She said similar fundraising could be a way to build a larger gym, and even suggested the City of Liberty Hill’s Economic Development Corp. could help.

“The EDC has tons of money to build a school or a gym,” she said.

Christy Grant said she relied on the school system to help her kids physically and academically.

“As a community, we can rally together and can make it work,” she said, adding that she would put administrators on her prayer chain in hopes that an alternative solution could be found.

Zapien said the larger question is how the school district deals with “overgrowth”.

“Maybe it should be closed to transfer students,” she said.

Braun said a new elementary school is needed and will become the subject of a future bond election.

“The community can help by getting behind the next bond package,” she said.

Zapien, who said she helped promote the 2010 bond package, said, “it barely passed and now the money is already gone and we’re back in the same situation.”

Braun said that while enrollment continues to climb in the second through fourth grades at Burden Elementary, larger PE class size is not as critical an issue. She said the gym is much larger and the students are older.

“I have had several people who have asked if we are considering reducing the PE periods at Bill Burden,” Braun said. “We feel that with the larger gym and older students we can continue with the larger classes, at least for next year.”

“We will need the parents’ and community’s help as we deal with the inevitable growth,” Braun said. “Growth brings many challenges with it. We welcome community involvement, but we would like for people to talk to us before turning to social media. We have a moral obligation to make the best decisions we can for our students. We take the responsibility very seriously and do not make decisions lightly.”

“We can’t see a different way,” Herbst said of the decision to reduce class days for PE. “But I challenge you to find a different way.”

She invited parents to send her ideas by email. After considering those, she promised to call another meeting later this month of those who communicate with her.

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