Far-reaching consequences of lax out-of-classroom policies

After reading a recent Dispatch article, letters to the editor,
and an editorial, I would like to clarify my position regarding
school activities that occur outside of the classroom.
Instructional opportunities outside of the classroom can be of
great value. Lessons that last a lifetime can be learned from
playing on a sports team, writing for a school magazine,
volunteering for a service organization, or being a member of a
club, such as the Future Farmers of America.
After reading a recent Dispatch article, letters to the editor, and an editorial, I would like to clarify my position regarding school activities that occur outside of the classroom.

Instructional opportunities outside of the classroom can be of great value. Lessons that last a lifetime can be learned from playing on a sports team, writing for a school magazine, volunteering for a service organization, or being a member of a club, such as the Future Farmers of America. I am aware of the research that links participation in rich, well-developed extracurricular activities to academic achievement, but I believe that students are best served when those activities take place, whenever possible, outside of classroom time. My children have participated in a wide range of such activities, and each one benefited them in a different way.

In the editorial regarding a recent Board of Education vote on field trips, the following question was asked and answer given, “Have trustees questioned the value of field trips for athletes or music groups that take teachers and students out of the classroom? Not at this point.” If the editors had done some homework, they would have discovered that this exact question has been asked at the past three Board meetings by myself and other Board members in regards to several field trips.

A major issue noted was the weighing of lost instructional time against the benefits of out-of-classroom experiences. Another concern was the use of teachers as chaperones when their curriculum was not relevant to the field trip and their students were not participating in the field trip. A trip’s length needs to be considered as well. When a single trip or a combination of trips for one program lasts several days, is it not prudent to ask at what point student achievement is affected?

When an elementary class takes a field trip, the entire class and teacher are together. A high school student, on the other hand, attends multiple classes with multiple teachers; time away from class for a club or extracurricular activity means loss of instructional time in core subjects, such as English, math, and science. Concerns were deferred for further discussion when Board policies would be revisited and revised.

What made the FFA trips unique were the chaperoning issues mentioned in the editorial. The editorial states field trips are normally “routine, an easy ‘yes’ for trustees.” Does that mean that if a Board member identifies a problem that the matter should not be discussed and a solution not sought just because traditionally a matter has been routine? Isn’t this exactly the kind of “rubberstamping” the editors have criticized in the past?

A school district assumes an enormous responsibility when students leave campus and even more so when the trip’s length and distance necessitate an overnight stay. The seriousness of the matter is highlighted by the fact that overnight trips are brought to the Board for approval. I believe that the public that has elected its trustees expects that every issue requiring a vote be studied with due diligence.

When it comes to students being off campus for a period of time, my position is that one can never be too careful. In my opinion, it was not a responsible choice to have as chaperones a teacher’s personal friend, a relative and no FFA parents. When the FFA advisor brought up at the Board meeting the suggestion of parents chaperoning the trips, even though they had already put in so much time on behalf of the program, I thought this was a good solution. I was surprised that this option was not embraced.

Also questioned was the attendance of one of the high school’s academic coordinators. Though there would have been some definite benefits derived from a counselor attending the FFA meetings, I took the position that the counselor was needed on campus during this busy time of year when students are choosing their schedules and seniors are finalizing plans. The ratio of counselors to students is currently 1 to 600, and taking one away would mean that only three counselors would be left to service a school of 2,400. A more balanced solution would have been for the counselor to attend the conference over the weekend but stay on campus when school was in session.

Finally, I commend the editors for bringing up the “big picture” questions about allocation of funds and loss of instructional time, but I am concerned that no distinction has been made between extracurricular activities and the classroom. Certain activities support the classroom curriculum, and I think the FFA field trips are a good example of this. Other activities mentioned in the editorial, such as wrestling, stand on their own merits in terms of the valuable experience they offer students.

The classroom experience is the foundation of our schools. There is nothing more basic and fundamental to a quality education than a student in a class being taught by an instructor knowledgeable in a subject matter. This is where the standards-based curriculum is taught, this is where schools are being judged, and this is where we need to focus our attention.

Last year, only 34 percent of Gilroy High School students tested proficient or advanced in English Language Arts; translated into real numbers, that means about 1,500 students did not. In math, 3 percent tested proficient or advanced in Algebra I, 12 percent in Geometry, and 6 percent in Algebra II. Serious efforts are underway to raise student achievement and make the school’s foundation a strong one; these efforts are taking place in the classroom. Consequently, our district must take seriously any time a student or a teacher is away from that environment. The “big picture” view of our schools is critical as we address the reasons for our dismal results and seek solutions.

A strong foundation can support extra floors, but a second or third floor cannot support a foundation. Extracurricular programs built on top of a solid foundation will provide our students with wonderful experiences and will make GUSD a better place for students, but the key to academic achievement is found in the classroom.

I hope that the field trip issue will open up a larger discussion about educational values and choices in this community, and I welcome the comments in the recent editorial and letters to the editor.

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