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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
West Lake Junior High School student Deeda Lolin plays the viola during class in West Valley City on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. The Utah State Board of Education voted 9-6 to drop the state requirement that students in grades seven and eight take health, physical education, arts, digital literacy and college-and-career readiness courses.

SALT LAKE CITY — Julie Provost was a shy, awkward girl who was 50 pounds overweight going into seventh grade.

The last thing she wanted to do was take a required physical education class because she feared ridicule and that she wouldn't be able to handle the physical demands of the class.

But the class was a turning point in her life, Provost said. She learned that she really liked the sports of volleyball and basketball and that physical activity was a good way to get in shape.

"I lost 50 pounds in seventh grade and it changed my life forever," said Provost, who earned a full-ride athletic college scholarship and is now PE teacher at Sand Ridge Junior High in Roy.

Provost was among the standing-room-only crowd that packed the offices of the State Board of Education Wednesday night to speak out on a recently passed state board rule that drops the arts, health, physical education, digital education and college and career readiness as core requirements for seventh- and eighth-graders.

Speakers who addressed a quorum of the State School Board alternately derided and cheered the policy change, which allows school districts or charter boards to offer the courses as electives or establish core requirements that exceed the remaining state core curriculum for grades 7-8: language arts, mathematics, integrated science, U.S. history and Utah history.

The new policy, approved by a 9-6 vote in August, says school districts or charter schools "shall offer" the following courses aligned with core standards in seventh and eighth grades: at least two of five arts courses, including visual arts, music, dance, theater or media arts; physical education; health education; college and career awareness; and as of the 2018-19 school year, digital literacy, and at least one of the world languages.

The board accepted public comment for three hours in compliance with its rule-making procedures but took no action, which state education officials explained at the outset. A record of the hearing will be submitted to the board for its consideration prior to its next meeting, said hearing officer David Thomas.

Jennie Earl, a parent from Morgan, said she supported the change because it is a boon to local control and she believes the courses will continue to be offered as electives and students will continue to take advantage of those opportunities.

"I'm not sure too many kids are going to opt for two math classes or two science classes," Earl said.

"Let us not be afraid of freedom. Thank you for trusting us," she said.

But others asked the board to reconsider or delay implementing the rule change.

Sara Jones, director of government relations for Utah Education Association, said the change in the core requirements seemed "arbitrary" and the decision was made without extensive conversation.

"Where was the debate about each course?" she said.

Schoolchildren expressed their love of the arts by playing "Ode to Joy" on string instruments and dancing, and two elementary school students, both budding playwrights, addressed the board to advocate for middle school arts.

"If student aren't given the opportunity to do art, they will never find their passion," said a girl named Emilia, who confidently addressed the board.

While many speakers spoke of the cognitive and creative reasons students need the arts, other advocated for health instruction.

Jessica Fiveash, of the Utah State Democratic Party's education caucus, said arts, PE and music classes are "outlets for individual expression they don't get in other classes."

But Fiveash said she was concerned that students won't learn coping skills customarily taught in health classes, as well as other life skills.

"I’m kind of new to Utah. I’m kind of alarmed by the suicide rate here," she said.

Crystal Young-Otterson, executive director of the Utah Cultural Alliance, presented the board a petition signed by 3,500 people urging it to reverse the decision.

But representatives of small rural school districts said they were unable to meet state required arts, health and physical education classes because they don't have teachers with the required endorsements, so they welcomed the flexibility.

But others, like Brad Asay, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said as a middle school art teacher, he learned that arts instruction changed lives.

He urged a former student to stay in school because he often worried about his home environment and the friends he associated with. The young teen thrived in arts classes.

"Last week I saw him entering Weber State University in visual arts. He found his voice. He found what he needed to keep away from influences that would have been detrimental," Asay said.

Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said he believes people on both sides of the issue made compelling arguments, which they should bring to local decision makers who are closest to their schools.

"The optimal solution is to let arguments be made to local governing boards," Van Tassell said.

"They are the ones who understand who is coming to their schools."