Parents and students loaded up the multipurpose room at Alta Vista High School last Monday to convince the school board to allow ninth grade P.E. exemptions, which would free up the schedule of incoming freshmen that take after-school sports and electives.
But after hours of discussion and public comment, the board was still split. Trustee Joe Mitchner said he would have trouble creating a path for students through high school where they are never exposed to physical education across all four years. Grade levels 10-12 already have existing, less restricting P.E. exemptions, and adding ninth grade to the fold means students could avoid P.E. altogether.
"District policies apply to everyone," Mitchner said. "It's important for students to be exposed to some of the things in the (P.E.) curriculum."
Kenneth Moussavian, the board representative for Los Altos High School, also weighed in. He said he managed to do extra-curricular activities and take challenging courses in his freshmen year without the exemption, and valued P.E. as one of the few courses that can take students out of their comfort zone and teach them important skills.
Marti McGuirk, a counselor at Mountain View High School, added that students who participate in P.E. in ninth grade are not at a disadvantage when it comes to preparing for college, and student acceptance rates to top-tier colleges are not hindered by the requirement.
Trustee Phil Faillace, on the other hand, supported bringing back the exemption. He said students should have the flexibility to specialize in the courses they choose, and it should be up to the students to decide. He added that scheduling conflicts are a problem because students would still have the enroll in P.E, but that shouldn't stop the board from voting for the exemption.
"This is a logistical problem to be solved," Faillace said.
The board agreed to look at more options and find creative ways for ninth grade students to fit all the electives and extra-curricular activities in their schedule, and come back to the exemption proposal at a later date. If the board decides to adopt the P.E. exemption, it would not take effect until after the 2014-15 school year.
Doug Moore is a parent of an incoming freshman student whose son plays trumpet, takes a foreign language and participates in after-school sports. As of next year, he might have to stop playing an instrument to make room for the mandatory P.E. course -- a decision Moore thinks his son should not have to make.
Moore said the state education code clearly allows exemptions, and the board had little reason to make ninth grade P.E. mandatory back in 2009. He said it's a common misconception among parents, teachers and even administrators that state code has changed over the last decade to require freshmen to take P.E.
But interpreting the education code may not be that simple. At the board meeting, Associate Superintendent Brigitte Sarraf said she vividly remembers the reinterpretations of the education code over the years to adhere to state standards, including new requirements for P.E. to be taught by a physical education instructor.
Faillace said the education code is ambiguous enough that the board could vote for a limited exemption for ninth grade students, and the discussion would be better spent talking about whether or not the district would have a better ninth grade program if they provided the exemption.
Despite the ambiguity, the exemption is certainly the exception to the rule. Thirty-six of the thirty-nine high schools in Santa Clara County require ninth graders to take P.E., according to a district report requested by the board.
Sarraf said the exemption would help the few ninth grade students who are juggling a stacked schedule, but would change little for the average student taking a normal course load.
"We're talking about not a lot of students," Sarraf said. "These are the students that load up their schedule with requirements, sports, music and take foreign languages."
On top of that, Sarraf said students could still take a zero period to fit everything into their schedule without the exemption -- an option parents like Moore oppose because it would cut into their kids' sleep schedule. Sarraf said at some point students with ambitious schedules need to decide between a zero period and dropping one of their electives.
If the school board votes to allow the exemption for ninth graders who take after-school sports, those students will still have to enroll in P.E. for that year and attend the course during off-season. This creates a logistics nightmare for P.E. teachers like Barbara Kaufman, physical education department coordinator at Mountain View High School. She said prior to 2009, it was hard to catch students up on activities everyone else in the class had done for months, and she would have to keep track of the five to six students in each period that would vanish during sports seasons.
"It was a mess," Kaufman said.
The requirement for students to opt out and back into sports depending on the season was a major reason for the decision to eliminate the exemption five years ago, according to the district report.
In some ways, the board's decision comes down to whether or not the trustees think P.E. is important enough to require it for all ninth grade students to take it. Groves said board members voted for the requirement in 2009 because they believed P.E. was a valuable subject in and of itself.
Kaufman said it's all too common for people to equate physical activity -- like an after school sport -- with physical education courses. She said P.E. has a standards-based curriculum where students learn about motor control and fitness standards as well as psychological and social concepts. Conversely, she said after-school sports are extra curricular, not co-ed and focused on performance rather than learning.
Los Gatos High School recently made ninth grade P.E. mandatory for all students and deemed it a success, according to the administration report.