Saturday, April 21, 2012


By Barbara Jones, Staff Writer, LA Daily News |

Taft High Health Education Department Chair Bridget Brownell poses with students holding papers with topics they learned about in health class. The LAUSD superintendent decided to keep the classes as a graduation requirement. (Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer)

04/21/2012 08:39:21 AM PDT  ::  Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy said Friday that health-education class should remain a requirement for high-school graduation, overruling a recommendation by his staff.

Administrators were inundated with an avalanche of critical emails after Deputy Superintendent Jaime Aquino unveiled a plan Tuesday to switch the one-semester class from a required to an elective course, beginning this fall.

The change was included in a plan to overhaul LAUSD graduation requirements so they match the minimum standards for admission to California's public universities. Because health isn't required by either the UC or CSU system, it would become an optional course.

In an email, however, Deasy said he believes the lessons

Taft High sophomore Katie Smilanick looks at the pamphlets in her health class on April 19. 2012. (Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer)

taught in health class are too critical to be offered as simply an elective.

"We use this course for our work on many, many issues, like anti-bullying, healthy nutrition and lifestyle, etc.," he wrote. "Given this, I feel that it must remain in the plan."

The curriculum proposal set for a school board vote next month would shrink the graduation requirement from 230 to 170 units, starting with the Class of 2016.

Students would no longer have to take any elective classes to graduate. However, they would have to pass a third year of math and take two years of a foreign language, in addition to the current requirements for English, science, social studies and performing arts.

And, beginning with the Class of 2017, students would have to earn at least a C in those core classes rather than a D, the current passing grade.

Officials worry that the district's already dismal dropout rate will worsen under the tougher academic and grading standards. They hope that making elective classes entirely optional would leave students' schedules open to get remedial help during the school day.

Deasy's recommendation, first announced via Twitter by the district's social media director, drew immediate praise from school board member Bennett Kayser, who taught health class for 14 years.

"Kids get information about nutrition, the dangers of obesity, the dangers about being around toxic substances that cause asthma, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy," Kayser said. "The health teacher may be the only place they know where to turn.

The message also spread quickly among teachers and students at Taft High School. A contingent from the Woodland Hills campus spoke out against the plan during Tuesday's school board meeting, and they were organizing a larger demonstration for next month's meeting.

"I am relieved to hear that Dr. Deasy has researched this issue and has recognized the value of our health-education program," said Bridget Brownell, who has taught health at Taft for 14 years and chairs the school's Education Department.

Brownell is known affectionately as "Mama B" to many of her students, a testament to the bonds she builds as she talks about the challenges facing today's teens - AIDS, bullying, depression, drugs, obesity, pregnancy and sexuality.

And the students can raise issues of their own, asking questions about their changing bodies, seeking advice about relationships, getting support for a healthier diet, voicing fears about a parent's illness.

"It's interesting because it's about them," said Alex Sandoval, 16, who lobbied the school board on Tuesday to retain the course as a requirement. "They can talk about whatever is bothering them and it helps them to know, `I'm normal, I'm OK.' "

Taft High junior Alex Sandoval, left, and the school's Health Education Department Chair Bridget Brownell meet in the classroom on April 19, 2012. Sandoval has been instrumental is leading the fight to keep health classes safe from LAUSD cuts. (Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer)

Jonah Banks, a 15-year-old sophomore who took the class last year, said there are no limits to where the discussions may go.

"We can talk about anything, and it's totally cool and comfortable," he said. "I learned a lot about risky behavior and how to do what's right. I learned that I'm not going to ruin my life for one good time."

Asked to rate the value of health class on a scale of one to 10, Katie Smilanick answered matter-of-factly, "54."

"There were things going on with my family that the class helped me understand and made me able to cope," she said. "I don't really know where I'd be if I hadn't had this class. The teachers are superheroes."

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