Despite strong objections from its teachers union, Evanston’s District 65 school board voted unanimously today to reduce required physical education hours, along with time in special classes including music, art, and drama to provide tutoring for students who have fallen behind academically.

The vote includes a request to the State of Illinois for a waiver from rules requiring physical education classes at least three days a week.

The district will establish Academic Skills Centers at its schools, and 60 part-time tutors will be hired, at a cost of more than $1 million per year. The funding comes from federal coronavirus assistance legislation, which runs for three years.

In a presentation to the Board, Kirby Callam, who will head the program, said “high dosage tutoring” is a very effective way of “addressing unfinished learning from previous years.”

One of those unfinished needs is helping students who struggled with remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, when children were at home instead of in a school.

However, Maria Barroso, the new president of the District Educators Council said “pulling students out of physical education and possibly the arts is not the way” to teach the whole student.

“If students were removed from their mainstream classes,” Barroso said, “they’d be segregated from their peers,” which could impact their social-emotional well-being.

She also said reducing the role of gym and special programs “devalues the effort of art and PE professionals.”

But Callam said parents could opt out of tutoring if they preferred having their children take gym and/or other “specials.”

He also stated that “if a child is not at grade level by 4th grade, the academic trajectory will affect them for the rest of their lives.”

The program will tutor up to 2,600 of the district’s 7,000-plus students, those who are only at 25-50% of grade level achievement.

The tutoring will be structured differently in elementary school and middle school.

In elementary school, most tutored students will receive their extra instruction during already scheduled acceleration blocks. If that’s not possible, then those particular students would use time from their “specials,” although not gym.

That’s because elementary school PE is only twenty minutes long, and tutoring requires more time.

In middle school, PE would be among the reduced option hours for students being tutored. That’s why the state waiver is needed to allow for fewer days of gym. District 65 does not need state approval to decrease student time in other special subjects such as art and music.

While the School Board approval was unanimous, several members had questions about what might be lost along with gym and specials time.

President Anya Tanyavutti said she had concerns over the social-emotional aspect, and said it could be very stressful for a parent to “have to make a choice between academic skills and something which is central to the core” of what a child truly loves, such as music or art.

Board member Marquise Weatherspoon said she was “torn between the two.” One of her children, she said, “needs some sort of physical activity,” but at the same time she said there is a “need for this academic piece.”

Eligible students in both elementary and middle school would receive the tutoring three to five times per week, 30-40 minutes per session, for at least ten weeks.

Callam, the program’s director, said “We really want to see this as a celebration for the child. It is not a penalty but an opportunity.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.