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Westport Schools Consider Cuts to Gym, French

WESTPORT, Conn. – Anticipating another tough budget season ahead, Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon proposed the district seek savings by reducing the amount of time students in grades 1 through 5 spend in gym class.

Under this proposed structural change, all physical education classes for those grades would be scheduled for a half-hour, two times a week, Landon told the Board of Education on Monday night. This would result in a weekly reduction of 10 minutes for kids in grades 1 to 3, 20 minutes for fourth-graders and 30 minutes for fifth-graders.

"The results of this structural change will permit greater instructional time in math, literacy, social studies and science," Landon told the board. "It will also result in the reduction of 2.0 teachers, creating approximately $140,000 in savings."

Another benefit, Landon said, is that it would better allow the elementary school principals — who he said are supportive of the change — to institute block scheduling, where math and literacy instruction can be scheduled in large amounts of time, making instruction more comprehensive.

Despite the projected cost savings and classroom benefits, several board members weren't sold on the idea of reducing the amount of time children get for physical education.

"I think what concerns me is that you're always hearing that kids aren't getting enough physical activity," said board member Mark Mathias. "So, for us to consider a cutback [on physical education], that's the No. 1 red flag I see."

Landon said students would be plenty active between physical education and recess, which would not be reduced. The district would still be meeting state physical education guidelines if the reductions were approved, he said.

Nevertheless, board Chairman Don O'Day, who called himself a "big P.E. advocate," said he would have trouble supporting the change.

"The extent that it'll put kids in the classroom for a greater amount time is a good thing. But I'd hate to, for $140,000 in savings, give up gym time," O'Day said. "I'd rather fight a little harder for the $140,000."

Another change Landon proposed was eliminating French as an option at the middle school level. Enrollment in French has been on the decline over the year, he said, while Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, the other two middle school language choices, are "well subscribed to."

Starting next year, Landon proposed that French be eliminated in the sixth grade but continue to be offered in seventh and eighth grades for those students already enrolled in it. The language will be completely phased out as next year's sixth-graders move through seventh and eighth grades, Landon said. French, however, will remain an option at the high school.

By eliminating French at just the sixth-grade level, Landon said the district would save about $25,000. Those saving would increase once it's completely phased out.

As with proposed cut backs on physical education, concerns were voiced over cutting French. "French is still very significant language," board member Elaine Whitney said. "I think we want to carefully consider when/if this is the right moment."

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