Special report, part 3: Students lament loss of electives

From choir in Nipomo to agriculture programs in Paso Robles, schools across SLO County are slashing much-loved electives in an effort to protect core classes, much to the chagrin of students

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comJune 11, 2012 

SLO County public education in crisis: Part 1 » | Part 2 » | Part 3 | Part 4 »

In a barn behind the baseball field, Dalton Smith hoses off a pinkish pig named Cash as Branson Medeiros arrives with two visitors.

“They really like it on these hot days,” Medeiros says, as water splashes off Cash’s back. “They don’t sweat, so it’s up to humans to keep them cool.”

Later, the two Paso Robles High School students lead Cash to a scale, revealing the blue butt hog’s weight: 145 pounds. When asked for his assessment, Medeiros sizes Cash up and says, “He’s pretty good in terms of balance. He’s got a lot of rib about him.”

Like a livestock judge, he factors in the young pig’s muscle, fat cover and overall capacity.

“He’s probably just right in terms of leanness,” he says, before adding his summation: “Good all around, solid market hog.”

While most people might see Cash as just another pig, through Paso Robles High’s FFA program, Medeiros has been trained to see more. But if ag teacher Mark Clement gets laid off as planned, the school’s livestock judging will be eliminated.

Much of the news surrounding education funding involves teacher layoffs, but cuts at the state level are also being felt by students, who stand to lose electives and extracurricular activities that, some say, keep them interested in education.

“It’s obviously important that we have math and English and science and all the core classes,” said Ashlee Juarez, a Paso Robles High School senior and Associated Student Body president. “But I think that all the electives are so important to the students. They are actually what make the kids want to go to school. It’s more than just sitting at a desk listening to lectures all day; you get to do something you love. I think it gets a lot of kids out of bed in the morning.”

Losing electives

Because of the state’s current financial woes, more cuts to education are inevitable. While voter initiatives seek to raise revenue, school districts can’t put their budgets off until the election. So they have to make their own spending plans based on state budget projections, which look grimmer with each year.

In San Luis Obispo County, the level of student impact differs from school to school.

Students at San Luis Obispo High School haven’t seen many noticeable cuts. At Atascadero High School, there have been small changes, such as the freshman baseball team joining the junior varsity. But schools such as Paso Robles High — which has had to cut classes and extracurricular programs — offer what could be a glimpse into the future of local education.

By law, schools have to provide core classes. So when districts tell principals that cuts must be made, principals turn to electives.

While parents of today’s students might not have had electives such as sign language or dance, students have gotten used to the idea that school is more than just equations and dangling participles.

Those electives, they say, help enrich their high school experience.

“I had planned to be able to take drama, dance and choir throughout high school,” said Nipomo High School senior Mikayla Blanchard.

While Nipomo has a lauded drama program, the choir program was cut after Blanchard’s freshman year because of budgetary needs.

“I was really disappointed,” Blanchard said. “I thought that it was so much fun.”

Having taken the class on the advice of her grandmother, Blanchard said, she appreciated being able to read music and practice singing every day.

“After choir got cut, and I wasn’t practicing, I kind of moved away from singing and got more involved in the acting and dancing aspect,” she said.

No more auto shop

In a garage at Morro Bay High School, four cars in various states of disrepair await the next round of inspection. Nearby, there are tools, Chilton manuals and several now-rusted trophies from past student competitions.

Partly because of state funding issues, the auto program here won’t be an option next year. Which is too bad, said senior Derek Spang, because the class teaches marketable skills.

“It’s kind of hard to see it go away for all the younger guys,” he said. “With the way technology is going, you can’t really lose these important skills.”

In auto shop, students not only take things apart, Spang said, but they also learn to diagnose problems. For fellow senior James Tyler, who wants to do auto work for a living, that will prepare him for further studies in Sacramento once he graduates high school.

“You definitely improve your skills in automotive class,” he said.

While students can sometimes take electives outside of school — either at a place such as Cuesta College or, say, a private dance studio — not all students can afford to.

“I think it’s better to at least have it at high school so it’s free,” Tyler said.

Mentor in jeopardy

At the barn in Paso Robles, Dalton Smith, a sophomore, sits on a gate as some of the pigs sleep under heat lamps. Other farm animals, including sheep and cows, mull around in other pens.

Smith said he took Clement’s leadership class partly because his father had Clement as a teacher.

“He had nothing but good things to say about him,” Smith said, adding his dad was “livid” when he heard Clement, a 33-year educator who heads the school’s ag program, had been pink-slipped.

Clement, Smith said, is “all around one of the best teachers ever.”

At Paso Robles High, dramatic cuts prompted students to ask the school board to keep their favorite programs. But the district, which had to institute 18 districtwide furlough days to remain financially solvent through next year, says tough choices have to be made.

Some of the teachers who got pink-slipped — such as dance teacher Jennifer Bedrosian — have since been reinstated. But Clement has not so far. The district has until August to decide.

Medeiros said he would have never even joined FFA were it not for Clement, who encouraged him to pursue livestock judging and public speaking. And because of the livestock judging skills he’s acquired, the junior hopes to get scholarship money, like a friend who scored $32,000 in livestock scholarships to attend Purdue University.

If the school loses Clement, he said, he and other students will lose an important role model.

“It feels unfair that they would take away a teacher that’s had such an impact on my life and in my high school career and who has really made high school for me an extremely enjoyable experience,” Medeiros said. “I feel cheated. And not only me, but my classmates are going to be cheated as well because of what they’re taking away from us.”

SLO County public education in crisis: Part 1 » | Part 2 » | Part 3 | Part 4 »

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