Montclair High School dance classes
Montclair High School student Destiny David speaks at the microphone during the Jan. 14 BOE meeting as her classmates listen. About 20 MHS students came to the meeting to urge the school to keep dance as a PE alternative. But the district said state laws prohibit them from doing so. ERIN ROLL/STAFF

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Montclair High School students can no longer take dance classes to fulfill their physical education requirement.

The decision to reclassify dance as an elective was met with disappointment by about 20 students who attended the Jan. 14 BOE meeting. The students started a petition last week asking the school to reconsider. Over 500 people have signed the petition.

Superintendent Kendra Johnson said the decision was made in order to comply with state guidelines.

“Not Dr. Johnson’s guidelines, not Montclair High School’s guidelines, not the Montclair Board of Education’s guidelines,” she said.

The New Jersey Department of Education requires all public school students from first grade onwards to take 150 hours of physical education and health courses each year, an average of two and a half hours a week. PE instructors must also be certified.

“The only circumstance under which PE teachers are appropriately credentialed to offer dance instruction in grades 6-12 is if they are dually certified in Health/PE and Dance,” said New Jersey Department of Education spokesperson Carmen Cusido.

Montclair dance instructors are not certified as PE instructors, but are in dance, said Johnson.

Under New Jersey state law, a dance class cannot officially be considered a PE class, which means that a student cannot take a dance class in order to fulfill a PE credit.

As of Tuesday, Johnson did not know what current students who have taken dance for PE credit will have to do, including if they will have to make up PE credit. She said the district will be in touch with the state to find out what should be done.

Cusido said typically dance is taught from a wellness perspective in the PE curriculum such as social dance, rather than an aesthetic foundation such as the art of dance. “There is little parity between the arts and PE standards in the upper elementary grades,” Cusido said.

According to the state, “The dance standards are very specific and require a high level of dance execution. Therefore, they are not easily aligned with the physical education standards. For example, a standards-based physical education program may utilize dance forms as part of instruction, but its focus is on fitness and wellness, while a dance class may address various dance techniques and styles. While there are some common elements, it is unlikely that the curricular objectives will align sufficiently. Courses in dance should be used to achieve arts credits.”

The state does allow for another option for high school students to apply sport-related activities to PE credit called Option Two. It permits a local board of education to approve alternative activities such as participation in a dance company or community theater to achieve PE credit.

Johnson said a student at Montclair applied to take dance under Option Two, but the student did not quality. She said the decision to review dance’s status as a PE credit course came up during this December discussion with the student given some of the information the student shared with her.

The high school has three full-year dance programs: Modern Dance I, Intermediate Dance Technique and the by-audition-only Advanced Dance Technique. All three are advertised as fulfilling the PE requirement on the school’s website.

Students learned of the pending change when they met with faculty to start planning their class schedules for next year. The staff told them that dance wasn’t going to be an option for PE credit next year, said Sarah Shiffman, a sophomore at Montclair High School, who takes dance in lieu of a gym class.

At the Jan. 14 meeting, 10 students came to the microphone and described how essential the dance program had been to their lives as high school students and provided many with no interest in sports another form of exercise.

If dance were re-classified as an elective instead of a credit course, it would mean fewer students would have time to take dance, which would put the program at risk, students said.

Maggie Borgen, a sophomore, told the board that being able to take dance at the high school helped her regain strength in her back muscles following surgery.

According to the petition, dance classes also include instruction on the health topics the state requires. Dance also provides an outlet for students who, for whatever reason, may not feel safe or comfortable in a regular PE class, the petition states.

Deb Garrison, a parent liaison with the School of Visual and Performing Arts, said dance is definitely a physical activity. “If you’ve ever stood at a ballet barre, you know the physical discipline of dance.”

Garrison voiced concern over the need for full-time dance instructors if fewer students take the class. “Essentially, the dance program as we know it will die,” she said.

There is also an equity issue, Garrison said. Wealthier families may be able to pay for dance classes for their children outside of school, but for students whose families do not have the means to pay for outside classes, the dance classes offered at the high school are their only option.

Johnson said the plan is to revise the dance classes to meet the state requirements for PE class.

“I believe there is a way to address and have a win-win situation, with state approval,” said Johnson.