Portsmouth High students slam 'cuts' to electives

School officials: We haven’t cut anything, it’s about student interest

Jim McGaw
Posted 5/11/16

PORTSMOUTH — Three students, a teacher and a parent told the School Committee Tuesday they strongly oppose what they perceive as sweeping cuts being made to electives at Portsmouth High.

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Portsmouth High students slam 'cuts' to electives

School officials: We haven’t cut anything, it’s about student interest


PORTSMOUTH — Three students, a teacher and a parent told the School Committee Tuesday they strongly oppose what they perceive as sweeping cuts being made to electives at Portsmouth High School next fall.

Creative writing, culinary arts, theater arts, Level 5 Portuguese and Spanish, science fiction literature, piano, guitar and TV production were just some of the optional classes said to be under the knife. 

“When I heard about the cuts to the electives I was stunned,” said Jack McDaid, a sophomore at PHS who has taken creative writing and piano, among other electives. “Often times electives are what drives kids to get up in the morning.”

Because the pleas came during the public comment portion of the meeting and were not listed on the agenda, committee members by law could not respond. Committee Chairwoman Terri Cortvriend suggested the speakers request to be placed on the agenda for the June 14 meeting so the issue could be discussed in full.

After the meeting, however, school officials denied that any electives have been “cut” from next year’s curriculum. However, if there’s a lack of student interest in a particular elective course, it won’t be offered that semester or year, they said.

“Most of those classes are undersubscribed. We never voted to cut them,” said Ms. Cortvriend. “We’ve had a policy that we should have 15 kids to run a class. Our thought is, these classes that are maybe being run with six kids — creative writing, for example — that we run it every other year, or every other semester, so we can get it up to 15. So it was never our intention to cut those classes, but run them on an alternating schedule.”

Superintendent of Schools Ana Riley agreed. “We did not cut any electives,” she said. “Remember, we added three or four additional electives. We’re trying to offer the ones kids want to take.”

Ms. Riley said she hasn’t even seen the course signups for the coming year. However, if enough students register for a particular elective for next semester, that course will be offered, she said.

Passionate speeches

The public comment portion of the meeting took place near the start of Tuesday’s session, and all of it centered around the electives. Julie Bisbano, an English teacher at PHS, said she was afraid that some students would leave the school if certain electives were eliminated.

“The children who do stay will be left with fewer choices than I have ever seen in our school’s history,” she said. “Can you think of a high-performing high school without thinking of personalized speciality classes? I can’t.”

Ms. Bisbano said classes such as creative writing, theater arts and culinary arts “often lead to choices for college majors, inroads to prestigious programs, viable careers and development of voice and confidence.”

She herself found her passion at PHS 40 years ago in a creative writing elective, Ms. Bisbano said. “I have always written, but it was there that I discovered that I could hone my craft, major in writing, make it both a career and an avocation,” she said. “Where is the ‘A’ in our STEAM program without a well-rounded offering of the arts?”

Rachel Lombardo, a sophomore at the high school, said she would hate to see the creative writing class no longer be offered.

“With creative writing I have been able to construct ideas and words better. It has helped me excel in English in places that I was struggling beforehand,” she said. “It brings me a sense of grievance to think about others who will be missing out on this opportunity.”

John Bagley, a senior at PHS, credited the skills he learned through his theater and creative writing electives in helping him get into Becker College next fall as a video game design major. 

“Simply put, I will be writing stories, plots, characters and similar literary structures as a job for video game companies,” he said. “In no other class can you learn how to structure a plot, how to create a character out of nothing, or even something as simple as how to write a creative pitch.”

The committee also heard from John McDaid, Jack’s father, who said it would be sad so see students lose electives that engage them and encourage their growth.

“I would hope we can find a way to mitigate the damage that’s being proposed for this fall … to find the courage to ask Portsmouth to invest appropriately in our educational system,” Mr. McDaid said.

Wait-and-see approach

After the meeting Ms. Riley said it’s too early to say which electives will be offered next fall, as the district is still waiting to hear from students. The decision ultimately lies with PHS Principal Robert Littlefield, she said.

The superintendent said she loved hearing students voice support for the creative writing course Tuesday night. That said, for the last four semesters fewer than seven students have taken the class, she said.

“But if we offered it maybe one semester or every other year, it would be full,” Ms. Riley said. “Although it’s wonderful to have a small class size, there’s something to be said for dialogue and discussion. For me, having 15 students instead of seven will enrich the quality of the class.”

In some cases, she added, the district will still offer a course if there are fewer than 15 students, such as the AP (advanced placement) computer science class. 

“There are only three to five kids so far, but they’re all seniors. We don’t want them to miss out. So we will run some even if they don’t meet the 15, but they need to make sense,” Ms. Riley said.

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