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Westport Speaks Out Against Gym, French Cuts

WESTPORT, Conn. – Westport high school students sometimes make appearances at Board of Education meetings, but elementary school students are a rare sight. But on Monday night, a fifth-grade student not only attended the meeting, she spoke out against a proposal to reduce physical education at the elementary level.

As part of his recommended 2012-13 year budget, Superintendent Elliott Landon proposed reducing the amount of time students in grades 1 through 5 spend in gym class. According to Landon, the structural change would allow more instructional time for students and would provide the district with a cost saving of about $140,000.

However, fifth-grader Sophia, a student at Coleytown Elementary, told the board that gym class, which is offered twice a week at the elementary schools, is something students look forward to.

"I feel strongly that it should not be shortened because it would be like shortening Spanish or music," Sophia said as she stood before the board. "I know the budget is very tight, but it's important."

As Sophia explained, gym class provides students with a break in their day and helps boost their energy. It is so important that more than 280 students at Coleytown Elementary signed a petition, she said.

Currently, students in grades 1 through 3 have gym for 35 minutes, twice a week; fourth-graders have it for 40 minutes, twice a week; and fifth-graders have it 45 minutes, twice a week. Under Landon's proposal, students would have physical education for 30 minutes, twice a week, which is currently how much gym time kindergarten students receive.

If the time reductions are put in place, two teachers would be cut, resulting in the cost savings. But, as Landon emphasized, a reduction in gym time would mean an increase in the amount of time students spend in the academic classroom.

Despite the reasoning, about a dozen parents and adults voiced their concerns about cutting gym time.

"Why are we considering cutting back when studies show it can help students?" said Lynn Sachs, a mother of two middle school boys, citing studies that have shown physical education may improve a student's ability to pay attention in class and perform better on tests. "It seems not only hurtful, but frankly irresponsible."

Nicole Dodge, a mom of two Saugatuck Elementary School students, said she strongly opposes the idea because physical education in the schools, she believes, is already too short. Dodge said that gym provides students with a critical break in the day. Shortening the time students have in gym would make it harder for them to focus in class.

Parents also spoke out against Landon's proposal to also eliminate French classes at the middle school level, starting with the sixth-grade. This change, he said, would provide the district with about $25,000 in savings.

According to Landon, enrollment in French has been on the decline over the past two years, while enrollment in Spanish and Mandarin, the other two middle school languages offered, have remained strong.

"If these were different times, I might very well suggest adding Arabic," instead of eliminating a language, he said. "But now, we have to look at ways to cut costs where we can without doing major damage."

Tracy Boyce, a mother of a fifth-grader, opposed the elimination of French at the middle school level, saying students should be allowed to have that choice.

"My daughter has a desire to take French like her brother and sister did," she said. "I think it's really about choice. I don't think my daughter wants take Spanish or Chinese, so maybe she won't take language at all. Or maybe she will and she'll be in a class she's not happy in."

The board is scheduled to vote on the superintendent's proposed $100.5 million budget, including these proposals, at its next meeting, Monday, Feb. 6.

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