March 24, 2006 – A bill to increase physical education requirements for students in the territory's public high schools received strong opposition from government officials at an Education, Culture and Youth Committee meeting Friday.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, stipulates that students in grades nine through 12 are required to take four years of P.E. in order to graduate – effective at the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year.
"If we do not prepare ourselves to change, and adapt to change, then we may end up as frozen relics and dinosaurs on the landscapes of educational development," Jn Baptiste said in support of the bill.
In less complicated language, he added that the bill is designed to combat issues such as childhood obesity and the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in adolescents.
"The [U.S.] Surgeon General's report from 2001 states that 13 percent of school age children are obese, while 15 percent of school age children are overweight," Jn Baptiste said. "And up to 45 percent of those individuals have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which is linked to obesity."
Jn Baptiste added that raising the physical education requirement for students is one way to take care of both issues, and said he would be adding an amendment to the bill which prohibits the sale of soft drinks and unhealthy snacks on local public school campuses.
While many testifiers said they supported the intent of the bill, they explained that implementing the requirement would be problematic. Vernelle de Lagarde, president of the St. Thomas-St. John American Federation of Teachers, told senators that the school day was divided into four 90-minute blocks that are already designated for certain subjects.
"It would be difficult to implement this without extending the school day," she said.
"I hope you guys will be prepared to explain this to parents when they come to you concerned about having to adjust to new hours," said Judy M. Gomez, chairwoman of the Board of Education.
Gomez's statements raised concerns from Sen. Ronald E. Russell, who said the Board would have to implement the requirement if the bill was passed.
"Well then why did you ask us to come here?" Gomez responded. "If you don't have respect for our opinions as professionals, if you ignore what we say and then do what you want and tell us to implement the bill, then what you need to do in the future is pass your legislation, and then send it to us."
Senators subsequently voted to move the bill onto the Rules Committee for further amendments.
Gomez was also vocal about a bill establishing a "territorial educational curricula committee," which would evaluate the curricula of the public school system and propose reforms to keep courses up to date.
"The Board of Education already does this, so there's no need to create a whole new committee," Gomez said. "And while I do agree that the curriculum needs to be looked at, we are only a part-time board, and re-assessing the courses takes time."
In response, Sen. Liston Davis, the bill's sponsor, said, "I anticipate this bill would be dead on arrival, because I know some senators are swayed by the opinions of the Education commissioner, and now the Board of Education. But the truth is that we always hear the department is assessing something, or developing something, and we never see any of the results. Where's the evidence? I want to see it, because it's the same thing we're hearing all the time.
"The current curriculum needs to be changed to be more in tune with what's happening globally," he continued. "We're not educating youngsters to remain in the Virgin Islands, we're educating them to fit into the mosaic of what's happening in places like New York or countries in Europe."
After the meeting, Davis said the bill would be amended to incorporate Gomez's concerns. "We will do away with forming another committee," he said. "And I know the Board has been assigned to perform this job, but the reality is that they don't get anything done – this bill, once amended, will just mandate that they do. It also appropriates $200,000 for any additional staff, curriculum counselors or experts they'll need."
Gomez said she would be in favor of the bill if it appropriated money to help the Board of Education with assessing and implementing a new curriculum.
However, senators voted to hold the bill in committee for further amendments.
Present at Friday's meeting were Sens. Roosevelt C. David, Davis, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone and Russell.
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