Beefing up science instruction at junior high schools is proving a difficult task for the Mesa Unified School District.
What first sounded like a simple proposition — giving seventh and eighth-graders an additional semester of science — has opened up a Pandora’s box of concerns for the district’s governing board, from childhood obesity to support for the arts and economic equality.
At a meeting Nov. 28, the board postponed making a fifnal decision on the proposal so it could gather more information. The board plans to vote on the issue at its meeting Tuesday.
District offi cials maintain the curriculum changes are necessary to put Mesa junior high schools on par with their neighbors and to prepare students for the addition of a science section to Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.
The Mesa district is the only one in the Valley that does not currently offer a full year of science instruction for junior high students.
But some parents are concerned because of what the plan involves: cutting one semester of seventh-grade physical education and one semester of electives for most eighth-graders.
To remedy that, the district would offer core classes either before or after school, freeing up space for an extra elective during the day for some groups of students, such as those struggling with academics and some honors students. Other students would have to pay $150 for the additional electives. Schools also would offer a free, physical education class at the same time for any student, but wouldn’t provide any transportation.
No one knows how many students would take advantage of these programs or how much they could cost the district, said board member Lynn Burnham.
Without that information, he said, it’s unclear whether the district can spend some extra cash to give low-income students scholarships to cover the extra electives.
Burnham and fellow board member Rich Crandall said they want to put away some money — perhaps $50,000 — for these scholarships. Without that aid, they said, the cost might prohibit some lower-income students from taking electives such as music and art.
Yvette Brock, whose daughter attends Fremont Junior High School, shares Burnham’s concern.
“My daughter plays the violin, and if they stop the strings program or any fine art, that’s something that kids really enjoy and they’re losing it,” she said. “I know you can do private lessons, but some of us can’t afford that.”
A music teacher from Powell Junior High School wrote a letter to board members, urging them to make electives mandatory and free and to provide free transportation.
But associate superintendent Michael Cowan told the board paying for free electives for every student would put a “considerable strain” on the district’s budget.
Possible physical education cuts also are a point of contention.
“I am just concerned with the fact that obesity is an epidemic in our country, and yet they are talking about cutting physical education programs in exchange for biology,” said Stacey K. Hemeyer, a mother of twins at Highland Elementary School. “I think cutting physical education is a very short-sighted solution to this problem.”
Brock said gym classes can also help children discover a sport that becomes a lifelong hobby.
“We keep hearing about children who are not eating right, not exercising. I feel like PE is just as important (as science) and for a lot of kids, this is the only exercise they get,” she said.
Mesa mother Maria Fossler said she believes the schools need to offer more academics and physical education, which is why she would like to see the school day extended. Other parents have voiced support for trimming a few minutes from each class period to allow a seventh period.
But the school day is limited, and Burnham said science must take priority in today’s world.
It’s easier for children to get physical activity, than to get science instruction, outside the classroom, he said.
“Whether the parent ... will take advantage of an A or Z hour to give their child a full year of physical education, or have their child in soccer or basketball, it would seem easier than trying to figure out how to get their child the science background they need to pass the test,” he said.