Bethlehem Press

Monday, January 21, 2019
PRESS PHOTO by mark kirlinBoard members Cedric Dettmar and Mark Sivak listen to discussions during the Jan. 9 meeting. PRESS PHOTO by mark kirlinBoard members Cedric Dettmar and Mark Sivak listen to discussions during the Jan. 9 meeting.

Saucon Valley passes AP chem timeline despite pushback from teachers

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 by Mark Kirlin SPecial to the Bethlehem Press in Local News

Up for a vote by the school board was a decision to add the Advanced Placement Chemistry course to the high school’s program of studies beginning in the fall of 2018. Currently, the high school offers 12 other advanced placement courses for students to choose from. The AP Chemistry course is a rigorous class that would require students to do a significant level of work over the summer in preparation for taking the class. The district has chosen high school science teacher Ashley Yestrumskas to teach the course when it begins. Yestrumskas has already co-taught the course previously.

There were two opposing sides to the discussion. On one side, a contingent of high school juniors, who clearly did not want to miss out on an opportunity to take the course this coming fall during their senior year. On the other side were the science department teachers, who felt nine months to prepare would be “rushed” and were pushing for a start date in the fall of 2019 instead.

First to speak to the board was Thomas Koch who is the science department chair and teaches science at the high school. According to Koch, the sentiment of the department was not to reject AP Chemistry, but to have more time to prepare so they could do their jobs more effectively. Koch also said the college board recommends an entire academic year to prepare for the course by gathering materials, preparing curriculum and to complete all 16 labs.

The next speaker was high school physics and environmental science teacher Cameron Fowler. Fowler said he believes the existing Honors Advanced Chemistry course is just as rigorous as AP Chemistry, but acknowledged that it does not have all the same objectives that are required with AP Chemistry. He went on to say he sees no reason to accelerate the timing of AP Chemistry and not a single teacher approves of adding it for the 2018-19 school year. Fowler, referring to the board, said “I feel like you’ve heard the claims from a small number of people, but ignored the very professionals to be expected to carry out the implementation.” Fowler also said the board is “calling the shots from the outside” and their approach to this issue “sets up a contentious relationship that will ultimately be harmful to our students.”

Superintendent Dr. Craig Butler addressed the audience and prefaced his comments by saying was in no way, shape, or form trying to discount the outstanding faculty. However, Butler provided information disputing Fowler’s claim of a “small number of people.” According to Butler, a poll was taken to survey students to see if there was enough interest in the class. Of the students surveyed, a total of 70 expressed interest, and 49 of the 70 said they would take the course including the required summer work. Twenty-one of the 70 said they were interested in the course but could not commit to the summer work. Based on the results, “to me the interest is more than significant” said Butler.

Six of the students who voted in support of the class attended the meeting. One of those was high school junior Sarah Duffy, who spoke to the board. She began by reading e-mails directed to the board by some of the students in support of the class who could not attend due to other commitments. Duffy also read her own prepared comments in an impassioned plea to allow her and her fellow classmates to have the chance to take the course as seniors in preparation for college. Duffy touted the importance of AP Chemistry by mentioning that it’s not just a chemistry course but also covers elements of math, science and intensive writing.

At times the discussion became contentious. At one point, board member Shamim Pakzad spoke out of frustration, saying, “I’ve been a teacher for the better part of 25 years and I’m speaking as a teacher”. He continued “I’m appalled the teachers are standing up here, basically making excuses at the expense of the kids.” Pakzad acknowledged the teachers may need to do some additional preparation and training and went onto say “let’s just stop with the charade.” He later apologized for his comments to those teachers who may have been offended, but re-affirmed his overall sentiment that he joined the board for the kids and their “interest sits at the top of my priorities list.”

The board voted and approved the class to start this fall. Board member Mark Sivak was the only one to vote no.

At the conclusion, board President Michael Karabin noted that he didn’t want to go against the teachers, but sometimes “we have to bite the bullet and take action.”

Perhaps the evening was best summarized by board member Susan Baxter, who noted the district should be proud that students were taking an interest and asking for the class.