From crosswords about suicide to the terrors of sugar to the desperate running of the mile in order to scrape by with a B in freshman physical education (PE); health and PE curricula have had damaging impacts on Portland Public Schools (PPS) students for years. The classes themselves are well intentioned, providing students with ways to stay healthy and happy but when put into practice, the curriculum often falls short.
Mental health education is required in Oregon schools by state law. However, teaching about mental health conditions is a highly sensitive subject and teachers are not often prepared to cover the topics in an appropriate manner. Mental health is a very complex subject that takes a significant amount of training to teach well, and many teachers are not able to provide the necessary level of support or sensitivity. Even so, parts of the mental health curriculum are appreciated by some students. Franklin senior Vaughn Dillender-Kinast says, “there’s a very interesting [unit] at the start of [the class] about goal setting. Which I think is good. It wasn’t related to nutrition or like physical health. It was definitely just mental health and having optimism and drive and I think that’s really important.”
Many Franklin students have been asked to run a distance in a certain amount of time; these requirements change depending on the teacher, and the class. Doing this is often the requirement to earn an A on their PE class final. The earning of the A is not based upon improvement of personal fitness or time but on a general standard that each student in the class is expected to meet. One key thing from the PPS-wide high school PE curriculum is that it is not standardized from school to school; a standard in one class or one school might not exist anywhere else. According to PPS Assistant Director for Health and Adapted Education Jenny Withycombe, this is because the pandemic hit in the middle of PE standard alignment. The goal is to eventually align standards across the district. “Whatever we decide, we want it to be consistent across buildings,” says Withycombe. Currently, Withycombe says, “[the standards] don’t actually give a ton of guidance. And so it’s both a blessing and a curse, right? [Teachers] get to really decide [the course’s] direction. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of directions [they] can go.”
Of all the district’s health curriculum, the nutrition portion has received the most complaints from students and parents at all levels of education. Students across PPS have been asked to calculate their body mass indexes, learned about the addictive nature of sugar, and have had to turn in personal daily meal and calorie trackers to their teachers for a grade.
Dillender-Kinast expressed concern with the health curriculum, saying that the curriculum should be reworked. Of the health curriculum he says, “[The curriculum] doesn’t go out and say you have to be skinnier but it says you have to be healthier. And of course [most people] in the society we live in…think that healthier is skinnier.”
Dillender-Kinast’s sentiments were echoed by an anonymous Franklin student whose mental and emotional health took a hit from the existing curriculum: “the health curriculum’s emphasis on calorie counting and eating a certain way damaged my view on eating and caused me to struggle with unhealthy food habits and restriction for years.”
“There’s really some alarming stories about young children coming home and not wanting to eat because they’re afraid they’re not going to eat the right thing,” says Susannah Lightbourne-Maynard, the PPS K-5 Health Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA). In response to the many complaints, PPS is currently in the process of working to adopt a new nutrition curriculum for all grade levels. According to Withycombe, “[PPS] actually could not find a single vendor whose nutrition education curriculum meets the needs that [PPS is] looking for and speaks to … exactly what our students have said they wanted.” Because of this, the curriculum change goes beyond adopting a new pre-existing curriculum and all the way to PPS drafting a new curriculum. Lightbourne-Maynard has been at the head of this rewrite. The new curriculum intends to turn away from MyPlate (a meal and nutrition tracking program) and weight/food shaming, and open doors for young students to explore the world of food and nutrition in a positive and healthy way. Lightbourne-Maynard explains that the curriculum will be: “more culturally affirming, more developmentally appropriate … more joyful, more connected to food and where food comes from. [The curriculum will] remove the stigma around food choices… [and be] more trauma-informed around disordered eating, and eating disorders.” The current timeline envisioned for the curriculum adoption is piloting in school sometime from January to June of 2025. Full adoption of the curriculum is projected for 2026.
Students have also had many positive experiences with the PPS health and PE curricula. “Weight training in sophomore year helped me get into working out and gave me the motivation and consistency to get into a habit,” says Dillender-Kinast. One very viable and appealing possibility for high school PE classes would be a complete switch to more classes like weight training and personal fitness. These classes fulfill more of PPS’ mission when it comes to the objective of high school PE: preparing students for a life full of healthy activity and movement. While it makes sense for elementary and middle school PE curriculum to contain games and activities, high school PE should serve as preparation for future fitness maintenance.
PPS seems to be on the right path, but they need to be vigilant about providing realistic and respectful standards; listening to student feedback; and setting teachers and students up for success. Lightbourne-Maynard wants students to know “[PPS has] really been listening … I think it can be really hard to be a student and feel like the wheels are turning really slowly or like no one’s hearing you.” There is a long way to go and student voices must be centered as these curriculum rewrites occur, but PPS is beginning to take important steps.