‘Speciality’ courses may be cut to focus on basics in high-achieving Lower Merion schools

    It’s well known that when school districts come up against budget shortfalls, some of the first things to go are specialty classes including art, music, and gym.

    But a proposal by the Lower Merion school district would reduce time for these specialty classes despite being very financially secure.

    Now there’s a battle brewing between parents who prefer the status quo and school officials aiming for a higher degree of excellence in more traditional subjects.

    It all boils down to one question: When it comes to school performance, how good is good enough?

    To outsiders, the Lower Merion School District looks like a model of academic achievement. Compared with the state as a whole, Lower Merion’s standardized test scores soar high across the curriculum at all grade levels.

    But when officials from Lower Merion look at their elementary school scores, specifically writing and science, they see room for improvement.

    “We have an unacceptable number of students that are leaving our elementary schools that are lacking some essential skills that they will need to succeed in life,” said Doug Young, a district spokesman.

    Writing scores at issue

    He cites the district’s fifth-grade standardized testing scores in writing to back up his point. In the most recent year on record, 5.3 percent were deemed advanced, and about 80 percent were deemed proficient. This is much better than the majority of the state, but slightly lagging behind some other Montgomery County districts.

    Young believes Lower Merion can raise the bar on traditional coursework by cutting back on what the district calls “the specials” — art, music, physical education/health, and library.

    He says the impetus for the changes came from teachers and staff who complained that the school day had become too fractured.

    “A teacher would say, ‘I’m trying to introduce a concept in social studies or science and eight students from my class are missing from this period because they’re receiving gifted support, they’re going for a music lesson. Is there a way that I can get the message to an entire group of kids at the same time without interruption?'” he said.

    Young says traditional instruction time has become even more disjointed since the district added foreign language instruction as requirement for all kids from second grade through high school.

    Now, the specialty classes are on a five-day schedule. The district’s proposed plan would move them to a six-day schedule. Instead of art meeting 36 times per year, a specialty class would meet 31 times, reducing class time by 300 minutes each school year.

    Parents unhappy with proposed changes.

    For many parents, that’s not an acceptable situation.

    “It doesn’t seem like there’s any reason to cut the arts at the base when all the performance is heading in the right direction,” said David McShane, who has children in first and third grades at Belmont Hills.

    He doubts the notion that taking away time for the specials will actually yield better results in the more traditional subjects.

    “There’s different kinds of learners,” McShane said. “So some kids just need to be moving, and moving their body a lot more and that helps them with the times that they need to be more focused. So cutting gym [for kinesthetic learners] or cutting art, especially for visual learners, could be deleterious to the way they learn.”

    McShane also points out the current model is actually serving Lower Merion quite well. While a half-dozen other Montgomery County schools exceeded Lower Merion’s fifth-grade writing score, only one other district (Lower Moreland) surpassed its 11th-grade writing score.

    Young emphasized local property taxes fund 90 percent of the district school budgets while only 10 percent comes from state and federal coffers. He says the proposed changes are motivated purely by a desire to enrich the district’s academic rigor.

    “This is not a situation,” he said, “where you have folks sitting around a table saying, ‘how can we cut arts?'”

    Parents and administrators will hash out the value of the proposed changes at a meeting Monday night at 7pm in the Lower Merion High School auditorium.

    The Lower Merion school board will vote on the matter at some point before the current school year ends.

    Standardized test results for all of Pennsylvania’s public schools can be found here

    A Previous version of this story errantly stated that Lower Merion’s time for “gifted instruction” would be curtailed.  The district assures “there is no proposal to cut gifted education services or class time.”

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