Local News

Tuesday, Feb 05 2013 12:02 AM

Parents may be silently opting out of K-5 curriculum

It's been a month since the Tehachapi Unified School District introduced its kindergarten through fifth grade Safe and Inclusive Schools curriculum at all three of its elementary school sites, and so far the controversy surrounding it seems to have diminished -- at least on the surface.

Denied an "opt-out" by the school board and its attorneys after the curriculum was approved in July 2012, parents were left with no choice but to accept that their student must participate in the federally mandated curriculum, which is part of the resolution agreement between the district and the United States Department of Justice following the suicide of gay student Seth Walsh in 2010.

Shockwaves rippled through the community as parents voiced their anger, claiming they were being bullied by school officials into accepting the new curriculum, which addresses bullying, respect and acceptance -- and that would include required lessons about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community -- all issues parents said were best taught at home and most definitely were not age-appropriate for elementary school children.

But after more than one year of meetings, parent feedback sessions and numerous evaluations and modifications of lessons, it's possible that some parents opposed to the curriculum have finally thrown in the towel -- as a parent suggested at a recent meeting of the school board -- or maybe the have just found a way to manipulate the system.

As part of the effort to engage parents about their child's participation in the school's new curriculum, the district included in its scope and sequence by grade level all of the dates that individual lessons would be taught to students.

District Superintendent Lisa Gilbert said the intent behind providing that information was to open up communication in hopes that parents would come and observe the lessons being given, or speak with their student's teacher instead of keeping their child home.

"We believe that if parents were to come and see what is being taught that many of their anxieties would be resolved," Gilbert said.

However, it appears that information, may instead be being used by parents to keep students home, excuse them early or bring them in late on days that they are scheduled to receive the compulsory instruction.

"Ultimately if a parent chooses to keep their child home that day it's their choice," Gilbert said. "But if it's because of the curriculum, that's unfortunate."

Under the California Education Code, parents have the right to keep their children out of public school classes the parents deem objectionable. But the district considers the new Safe and Inclusive curriculum to be safety-related and therefore not covered under the "opt-out" provided by the Ed Code section, which deals with instruction on health, including HIV, AIDS, sexual health, alcohol, tobacco and drugs.

Still, some parents said they have the right to pull their children out of the classes because they believe the curriculum promotes a gay agenda and violates their religious beliefs. If that's happening, the district could be losing federal funding that comes with daily student attendance.

That loss of funding is one of the reasons why the district has continued to encourage parents to review the new K-5 curriculum, which Gilbert said is focused solely on anti-bullying and the Golden Rule.

"There is not one mention about anything regarding sexual orientation at all," she added, referencing the younger grade curriculum approved by the local school board last summer. The 6-12 curriculum recently approved does have such reference, as was required by the resolution agreement.

Instead the K-5 course materials are mostly made up of Sesame Street-type lessons centered on teaching youngsters about being a nice person, being tolerant of differences and not being a mean to each other.

In one lesson, children create different shape, size and colored flowers, which are then grouped together to teach them that although everyone may be different that together they make a beautiful garden.

Still, some parents are suspicious and have accused the district of not being transparent in presenting its curriculum to the public by not placing it online.

An issue Gilbert said pertains to copyright issues with the publisher and has nothing to do with the district trying to hide anything from parents.

Binders containing copies of the curriculum are available, however, at each of the district's elementary school sites as well as the district office for parental review.

Meanwhile Gilbert said the impetus for the district is to follow its resolution agreement and ensure a safe learning environment for its students.

"It's all about helping the kids make positive choices," she said. "It's not about trying to take the place of parents."

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