On Monday, Dec. 2, the Board of Education (BOE) unanimously passed a measure that expands middle school engineering classes while making other cuts, most controversially to eighth grade drama and presentation skills classes. Reaction to the board’s decision was varied.
This year, eighth graders spend one period a week in an engineering course. The proposal, to be implemented for the 2014-2015 school year, expands this to two periods per week and adds one period per week for sixth and seventh graders.
To make room for the engineering classes, the measure cuts drama and presentation skills in the eighth grade and expands it in sixth grade; computer classes in the earlier grades are also cut.
This represents a cut of 12 hours of drama and presentation skills over three years, Director of Secondary Education Lisabeth Comm said. The administration stressed that something had to go to make room for the engineering classes and that they did not want to eliminate any programs. Ultimately, at the BOE meeting, Superintendent Elliott Landon called the proposal “balanced.”
The administration emphasized the importance of exposing students to engineering in middle school. According to Science Department Chair A.J. Scheetz, this improves perceptions of engineering as a career. “Eleven percent of all engineers in the U.S. are female,” Scheetz said. “Giving children, including girls, that exposure would hopefully lead to a more positive perception of pursuing engineering,” he said.
He also noted benefits to students’ 21st century skills, specifically the ability to critically evaluate students’ own products and then revise for improvement.
However, many are against cutting drama and presentation skills at all, viewing it as essential for the development of communication skills in middle schoolers. Darcy Hicks, a parent of two middle schoolers and a specialist in curriculum development on the arts for the New Haven Public Schools, noted the “confidence and skills that come out of a drama class.”
She pointed to the “alarming speed,” with which the engineering program is moving. “To go from a two month program to quadrupling the hours is rash to say the least,” she said. Her main qualm, however, is not with expanding the engineering classes but with cutting the arts.
Bedford drama and presentation skills teacher Karen McCormick, however, was mostly positive on the proposal, calling the engineering program a “really good idea.”
“I think [the BOE] means well,” she added. “They just value the engineering more.”
While McCormick said she wishes that drama and presentation skills hadn’t been cut, she agreed with the BOE that something had to be cut, and, if it had to be drama and presentation skills, she is glad that it was the eighth grade classes. “As long as they leave the sixth and seventh grade classes intact, I think there won’t be a major difference,” she said.
Supporters of the proposal emphasized that students can learn presentation skills without a dedicated class. “In every subject, students are having more and more practice with giving presentations,” Comm said. She argued that this more than makes up for the elimination of presentation skills in eighth grade.
However, some are skeptical of this approach. “Social studies teachers are there to teach social studies, and they’re busy doing that. They’re not trained nor do they have time in class to teach students how to [present] effectively,” Staples Players president Will Haskell said at the Nov. 25 BOE meeting.
“Students need to enter the class with those skills already in their pockets, and that’s what middle school presentation skills does,” he added.