Clifton School District Shares Good News and Details on Updated Health Curriculum

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The Clifton Board of Education met for their regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, August 25th. There were some exciting and promising items on the agenda, as well as a deeply detailed look at what the Health and Physical Education Standards will look like in practice.

Michael Doktor, the district’s Director of Operations and Student Services, gave a presentation on the “Say Something” program. Clifton will be working with Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit formed after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut that works to prevent school shootings by teaching students “to recognize warning signs and threats and provide them with an efficient means to report concerns.” The mission is to put an end to school shootings by teaching students to notice early warning signs on and off social media and by giving them a way to anonymously report concerning comments or behaviors. The anonymous reporting system includes a website, phone number, and an app that connects to a crisis center 24/7, 365 days a year and is already in use in thousands of schools across the country. The program is free to our school district thanks to a grant; Mr. Doktor thanked Amie Kolodziej who brought it to the district’s attention. More information will be provided by the district during the first week of school before the reporting system is live.

Paula Raygoza, our PBSIS Coordinator, shared some exciting news about our program. PBSIS is Positive Behavior Support In Schools and is a statewide initiative. You can read more about it here.

Last year our district’s team presented at the NJPBSIS Community of Practice Forum, sharing with other districts the work we are doing here. Ms. Raygoza said that as a result of that presentation, several other school districts reached out and asked to follow what Clifton is doing. Every one of our district’s seventeen schools is implementing PBSIS and as Ms. Raygoza said, “We are rocking it out.”

Clifton was also recognized on a national level and was invited to present at the Center on PBSIS National Technical Assistance and will be presenting again this fall in Chicago. Ms. Raygoza also spoke with pride about a podcast her team recorded for the University of Missouri - “The Educator’s Blueprint.”

Addressing concerns and the spread of misinformation in the community, Janina Kusielewicz, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, presented all of the topics and pacing for the Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Standards with a focus on the topics in the Health curriculum in grades K-12. Ms. Kusielewicz began by explaining that the opt out letter is available on the district website in English, Spanish, and Arabic. These letters will also be posted on each Health teacher’s Google classroom along with the pacing schedule so that parents can easily see when those lessons will be addressed. Parents cannot opt out of the entire curriculum but can ask that their child be excluded from specific lessons. She explained that the curriculum is very broad, encompassing many topics ranging from fire safety to skin care to calling 9-1-1. The sexual health standards make up a tiny portion of the Health and Physical Education Standards and at the elementary school level, the Health teachers visit each class for only 25-30 minutes per week for just half the year for a total of twenty lessons across two marking periods.

In Kindergarten, for example, the curriculum includes eight lessons on feelings including empathy, conflict resolution, and respect. There are four lessons on self-care and hygiene, covering topics like dental care and germs. Four lessons on community and safety include classes about community helpers and fire safety, and four lessons on nutrition address healthy foods and food groups.

Ms. Kusielewicz continued, moving through the curricula and the standards and topics that would be addressed at each grade level. In grade two there is one lesson which addresses physiological terminology, including the body’s various systems (skeletal, cardiovascular, etc.) and the correct terms for the reproductive organs. She explained that teaching correct terminology is part of a growing abuse prevention movement. Euphemisms and nicknames can make it difficult for trusted adults to know what a child means if that child is trying to describe any inappropriate conduct.

Ms. Kusielewicz presented a sample lesson, including actual scripted language for the teacher to use as a guide and some of the questions that would be presented to the class. You can see the whole thing here, starting at about minute 0:24. The major focus of this lesson is on safety - that the parts of our bodies which are covered by a bathing suit are private and should not be looked at or touched by anyone other than a parent or a doctor when providing needed care.

Puberty is covered in two lessons in grade five and again, Ms. Kusielewicz presented an actual sample lesson, starting at about minute 0:32. A key goal is for students to anticipate puberty with positive feelings and factual information so that they will understand what’s happening to their bodies as they start to change and to understand that everyone will experience these changes at different times. The lessons stress the importance of students talking with their trusted adults about these topics and asking questions, even if it feels uncomfortable.

During her presentation of the grade eight sample lesson, Ms. Kusielewicz reminded the public that by law, any lessons about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases must include discussion of abstinence as the only way to guarantee protection from both. These lessons are intended to be inclusive, respectful, and to give students the information they need to keep themselves safe.

In high school the lessons become much more specific and detailed, including information about the male and female reproductive systems, embryo development, and stages of birth. Students learn about specific STDs and STIs and details about various forms of birth control. They also learn about self-exams for early cancer detection and about consent.

In grade ten the entire curriculum is devoted to driver education and safety.

Grades 11 and 12 include a wide variety of topics including depression, first aid, physical fitness, and planning for the future.

Students whose parents opt them out of certain lessons will not be penalized and would be given an alternative assignment to work on during that time, Ms. Kusielewicz said. There will be another presentation on these updated standards in September.

Public Recognition: There were several speakers, including a couple who remain dissatisfied with the updated standards, despite the opt-out option. Tom Whittles invited the community to CASA’s second annual candlelight vigil for overdose awareness. The vigil will be held on Wednesday, August 31st at 8 pm. Lori Lalama, president of the Clifton Education Association, encouraged everyone to write to our legislators and ask for federal waivers for the Child Nutrition Program so that all children have access to free lunch. She spoke out against the dangerous misinformation that has been spreading regarding the updated standards and corrected a speaker who claimed that Wayne had rejected these state-mandated standards. Lalama said that Wayne's school district had approved them last week.

Superintendent’s comments: During his comments Dr. Robertozzi addressed a couple of questions that came up during public comment. The reason for having an opt-out for certain Health lessons, he said, is because there is a New Jersey statute that provides for it. There is no law that allows for an opt-in. According to the state, districts will be penalized on their QSAC score if they do not create curricula to address the standards. What that ultimately means could vary including, at the extreme, a withholding of state funding.

The superintendent shared that Clifton welcomed over 100 new staff members and talked about some of the training they have been receiving, including workshops on safety protocols and cultural awareness training. Students’ first day of school will be on Tuesday, September 6th. Schedules will be available on the Parent Portal on Monday, August 29th. New students should already have received letters with their log-in information. For returning students, that information remains the same.

Dr. Robertozzi encouraged all parents to apply for the free lunch program, even if they are not sure that they qualify, as the federal waiver has expired.

During a referendum update he announced that the winning bid for the stadium and athletic field upgrades came in at $800,000 below the budgeted amount. The field at WWMS should be ready for baseball season in the spring. The new band field at Clifton High School will be turfed next week and the temporarily displaced marching band completed a successful two weeks of band camp at School Two.

Board President’s comments: President Jim Smith announced that the vaccination dome at CHS is being dismantled and that the city will be repairing the parking lot once the band field and tennis courts are complete. He encouraged everyone to check the district website, especially the Peachjar page, to keep informed of the many things happening in the district.

Thursday, September 1st, is our big opening night for the football season. The Clifton Mustangs will be squaring off against East Orange for the first time since the controversial state finals last December. Tickets must be purchased in advance.

Commissioners’ comments:

Alan Paris responded to comments from speakers, some of whom have claimed that other districts were passing resolutions to reject the updated Health standards. None of the referenced resolutions were rejections of the standards, he said. Rather, some have passed resolutions rejecting some of the specific curricular materials that have been passed around the Internet and have created their own curricula. Clifton too has created its own curriculum, aligned to the standards.

Fahim Abedrabbo mentioned the many flag raisings in Clifton and how they are indicative of the diversity here. He supported the idea of proactively advertising the existence of the opt-out letter for certain lessons rather than waiting for parents to find it on their own. “It helps us debunk the myths…” he added.

Feras Awwad had no comments.

Dana Beltran spoke about the importance of the Free and Reduced Lunch program. She encouraged the community to write to our legislators and to encourage them to extend the free lunch for all schoolchildren. This, she said, would help families who may be intimidated by the forms they currently need to fill out or who don’t even know that the forms exist. She expressed her personal objection to the one lesson in second grade where correct terminology for body parts is taught but also acknowledged that her opinion “doesn’t really matter” because the board is going to approve the curriculum.

Judith Bassford wished luck to all the candidates and reiterated Tom Whittles’ invitation to the community to attend CASA’s candlelight vigil on the 31st. She agreed with Comm. Beltran regarding the terminology in the second grade curriculum.

Jim Daley reminded the community to be patient and to wait to get all of the facts before reacting to things. He added, “parents need to be engaged and involved with their children” and suggested that they make regular use of the district website, which has a lot of information about the standards and many other things, as well.

Jim Smith talked about the amazing presentation on leadership given by Assistant Superintendent Mark Gengaro and featuring a full room, choreographed drumsticks routine. Dr. Robertozzi joined some other district administrators on stage and played guitar with Clifton’s own aptly-titled band, The Administrators. It was an extremely well received and motivating event for the staff. President Smith said that he hoped to post a video soon.

Joe Canova and Lucy Danny were not present.

New business: Dr. Robertozzi mentioned the letter that he drafted, as per the last BOE meeting, asking our legislators for universal free lunch, and asked for board input.

After meeting in executive session to discuss a couple of personnel issues, the Board adjourned. You can watch the entire meeting here.

The next meeting of the Board of Education will be on Thursday, September 22nd at 7 pm.

Photo credit: Clifton Public Schools - from video

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