The Santa Maria Joint Union High School District is examining the possibility of eliminating standalone health classes and making changes to physical education requirements to align itself with new state requirements.
The potential changes in the district's curriculum, however, have left some staff and community members concerned.
At the most recent board meeting, held last week, multiple Righetti High School teachers shared their concerns about the direction the district is headed.
Christie Ortiz, a health teacher at Righetti High, says the district is proposing changes to the requirements that are not valuing the well-being of students.
“They are recommending to swap the new (Equity and Social Justice) course for health as a graduation requirement, but they propose that the ESJ course is only a semester long," Ortiz said at the board meeting. "It seems like the rational next step would be to keep health as the course that runs opposite of it because it’s that important."
There was no action taken at the board meeting, but according to John Davis, an assistant superintendent with the district, the topic will be brought back at the February meeting for a board decision.
After public comments from concerned teachers, Karen Rotondi, the Director of Teaching and Learning with the district, shared a presentation explaining the details behind the proposed revision.
The "high school graduation requirements revision" includes the replacement of a ninth-grade health course requirement with that of an ethnic studies course requirement and an increase from five to 10 credits that student-athletes and marching band members can apply towards the physical education requirement, which is the equivalent of the entire sophomore year of PE.
The new state requirement signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021 mandates that all public schools in California offer at least one ethnic studies course by the 2025-26 school year.
Although the district originally had a health course as a graduation requirement, health classes are not required for graduation in California. There are some health units that are mandated and these would be moved into the ninth-grade PE course. Those units include sexual health education, AIDS/HIV education, LGBTQ inclusiveness education and CPR training.
Scott Nickason, a physical education teacher at Righetti High, asked the board to be transparent about why it is making such decisions. Nickason said PE has components that are as important as English literacy.
“You’re confusing sport with PE. Sport is not PE, sport is an activity, PE has physical literacy," Nickason said. “We help the athlete get better on the field. At the same time, as a whole population, we help the kid."
The PE waiver being bumped up to 10 units allows select students the ability to waive PE for two semesters, allowing space for required courses.
“What we find is that a lot of students are having a very difficult time fitting in electives and other required courses," said Rotondi.
Starting with the graduating class of 2030, the district will ensure that all students are provided with equitable access to the ethnic and gender studies course prior to the completion of high school, making ethnic and gender studies a required component of graduation.
Rotondi's presentation included a slide called "Course Attributions" which compared ethnic and gender studies, health and a class currently offered on life and career planning. The ethnic and gender studies course meets three of the four criteria: it's a state graduation requirement, will be a college credit course and is A-G approved, meaning it also helps students get accepted to four-year public universities in California. It is not a State Accountability Indicator.
The health course does not check any of those boxes. The course on life and career planning checks three of the four boxes, with it only lacking the state graduation requirement.
Ortiz, the health teacher at Righetti, says a PE class is not the best environment to teach health and it’s a disservice to students to make it an add-on to the PE curriculum.
“Their plan is to add some of the other topics spread throughout other courses. We should be doing that on top of the freshman health course,” said Ortiz. “During this tumultuous time for our youth, especially post-COVID, we need more health empowerment, not less."
School board member Amy Lopez says she empathizes with the health instructors and those who spoke at the board meeting and asked if a health class could be offered as an elective.
According to Ortiz, if the changes are made, health teachers' jobs would not be in jeopardy, but rather there would be plans to have those teachers moved to other subjects.
Rotondi said it’s like asking to put any other course in. If a teacher can look at the four boxes listed, it is something that can push the course forward, but she also says she doesn't want to speak for the site administrators because the process is a "very complicated, difficult beast to work with."
"That would have to be a conversation at each site,” Rotondi said.