p-schoolsexed-010709 School Dept. seeks savings in sex ed

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PORTLAND — A proposal to reassign the human sexuality teacher for the School Department’s 10 elementary schools is causing concern among some parents and those who provide health services to students.
The School Committee on Jan. 7 will conduct a first reading of the proposal, one of several designed to make up for a $1.8 million curtailment in state education funds.
Members of the public will have a chance to express their opinions at special public hearing scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 14, the week before the committee is scheduled to vote on the proposal.
The interim superintendent of schools’ proposal, which first surfaced more than two weeks ago, would reassign the elementary sex education coordinator to Lincoln Middle School, where she would fill a vacant health teacher position. Administrators believe the temporary reassignment will save $45,000, since the elementary sex education curriculum would be shifted to classroom teachers.
But Amanda Rowe, head nurse for the schools, is worried there will not be enough time to adequately train classroom teachers to be comfortable answering questions children have about their maturing bodies.
“If teachers are not comfortable and not trained they are not going to teach it,” Rowe said. “We de facto lose the program.”
The School Committee will review two options that would immediately take effect and last for the rest of the school year.
The first would rely upon science teachers to instruct fourth-graders about body systems, communicable diseases and an introduction to puberty, while a social worker would teach students how to  prevent sexual abuse.
In fifth grade, science teachers would continue with communicable diseases and teach about hygiene, reproductive systems and emotional and physical changes in puberty, while a social worker would teach about abuse prevention, gender-specific issues, families and sexual harassment.
The second option shifts most of the sex education to current middle school and/or high school Family Living teachers. Science teachers would teach communicable diseases in the fourth and fifth grades, body systems in fourth grade and hygiene in the fifth.
Current middle school and high school Family Living teachers would teach abuse prevention and an introduction to puberty in fourth grade, and puberty, hygiene, abuse prevention, reproductive systems, families, sexual harassment and gender-specific issues in the fifth.
Curriculum coordinator Thomas Lafavore said the department would likely have to bolster its professional development under the first option, especially if social workers are given classroom responsibility. “The second option is not a big stretch,” Lafavore said.
Lafavore said the proposal is a temporary change and the human sexuality position could be reinstated in the elementary schools in the next budget. With the current state of the economy, which is expected to get worse in the coming year, he said it would be premature to speculate on the likelihood of restoring the position next year.
“I don’t see a big change in this curriculum in the next few years,” he said.
Rowe said she was skeptical that the district would actually save $45,000. Even if those savings are realized, she said, it would not be enough to justify tampering with a program that directly affects so many students in the classroom.
“We have other programs that touch only a handful of students,” Rowe said. “We spend a lot of money on sports programs and others that don’t touch all students. Here’s a small program that touches every fourth and fifth grader with basic, important information to keep them safe and we’re cutting that.”
Rowe said the sex education curriculum, which the district calls “Family Living,” has been a target around budget time in recent years. The previous superintendent commissioned two task forces on the issue, she said, and both found that curriculum only needed small modifications, but did not warrant a major overhaul.
Rowe said the unit on sexual abuse and harassment is especially important. “We always get fourth- and fifth-grade students saying they’ve been abused after that unit,” she said.
The district currently uses an advisory board of parents, community members and staff to review changes to sex education curriculum. That board, which meets three or four times a year, has not had a chance to discuss the proposed changes.
Jackie Chait, a parent of a Clifford Elementary sixth-grader, said she is concerned about the impact of the changes. “It’s just very alarming to me,” she said.
Clara Porter, a parent of a Hall Elementary sixth-grader, said a robust curriculum led by those comfortable with the subject is needed early in a student’s education. Porter, who with Chait sits on the advisory board, said the group at one meeting reviewed anonymous questions submitted by elementary students and was surprised with what they were asking.
“It showed that there was some misinformation that needed to be countered,” she said.
Although she talks with her daughter about sexuality, Porter said having someone other than a regular classroom teacher or parent handle the more sensitive questions ensures that her daughter is comfortable enough to ask the tough questions.
School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said the committee wants to be certain the department delivers the same curriculum, but only in a different way. He said the committee is also eager to hear what the community has to say.
Meanwhile, the district is also weighing athletic budget cuts and furlough days as other last-resort money-saving measures.
The public hearing slated for Jan. 14 will start at 7 p.m. in room 250 of Casco Bay High School, 196 Allen Ave.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net.