Liberty High School faculty sees a shift in students' interest in electives CARROLL COUNTY EDUCATION


For high school students, electives are like food -- some people can't get enough of them, and others load up on the wrong kind.

"I know some kids who have gym three times a day," said A. Jay Merker of Finksburg, a senior at Westminster High School.

But Jay can hardly fit in all the courses he would like to take.

For example, Jay would like to enroll in a social studies course called "Issues of Contemporary America."

"I wish I could have taken it, but there is no way I could have fit it into my schedule," he said. "I think I would have enjoyed it more than anything else. It lets you know what's going on in the world now."

Jay plans to go to Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and major in criminal justice, and he said the issues class would have helped him in his career goal.

By the time his younger brother, an eighth-grader, graduates, he will have additional requirements, such as technical education and world history, that begin with next year's ninth-graders.

As these requirements mount, students have less room for electives, and some of those classes are disappearing.

For example, a course called "American Woman," which was combined with another unit called "Human Relations," was dropped this year.

By last year, Liberty High School was the last school to offer it, and teacher Cheryl Bobbitt was down to one class a year of about 20 students.

"I do think it's unfortunate it was dropped," Ms. Bobbitt said. She feels the same way about the literature and social studies classes dealing with African-American authors and history. Those courses were offered in the 1970s, she said, but interest and awareness have dwindled.

Electives are driven by student demand -- if students don't sign up, the courses aren't offered. After a while, no students are around to give the kind of word-of-mouth endorsements that prompt others to sign up.

With American Woman, there were other drawbacks that always plagued the course, Ms. Bobbitt said.

"There were very few males who took the class," she said, even though it was sometimes taught by men at other schools.

Many female students shunned the course because they associated it with a feminist perspective, she said, although the course always offered different viewpoints on women's issues.

"Even as late as 1990, there were students in the class that never heard of sexism," she said. "Some people perceived it as a political agenda of a small, special interest group."

Which, to Ms. Bobbitt, only further illustrated the need for the course, and for other courses that address minority issues.

"The No. 1 cause of prejudice is ignorance," she said.

Ms. Bobbitt said she believes Donald Vetter, supervisor of social studies for the system, is doing his best to put these issues into the mainstream, required social studies classes.

For example, during this year's 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas, Mr. Vetter provided materials to teachers that included a more realistic look at the historic event, including stressing that Native Americans already were here and had a culture of their own. High school classes also discussed the violence and controversy surrounding Columbus' arrival.

But Ms. Bobbitt said she doesn't feel the system has adequately zzTC

integrated course materials yet. Much of it is up to the individual teacher, she said.

"Any time you get change in an institution is when there's pressure for change," such as from parents or government, she said. "I just don't think the pressure has been there."

Mr. Vetter said all elementary and high school social studies courses try to maintain awareness of minorities and women. But he said there is currently no active effort to improve that.

Putting those issues in the mainstream courses exposes more students to them, he said, but "the in-depth study is not there."

"I loved our elective program," Mr. Vetter said. "We had two years of electives, now it's one. We have no choice."

Peter B. McDowell, director of secondary education, said the supervisor of English, Barry Gelsinger, has revised the reading lists of required English classes that include many more women and minorities.

So instead of 20 students a year getting the American Woman course, he said, an average of 6,000 high school students a year will be exposed to the writing and perspective of female authors.

Jay Merker couldn't recall the name of more than one female writer from his English classes, and that was Emily Dickinson.

He said one of his courses this year has offered Maya Angelou's work as a choice, and he knows that many, if not most, of the students choosing to read the African-American poet's work are white.

As for U.S. history, he came up with two women -- Harriet Tubman and Betsy Ross. He said there was another one, but he couldn't think of her name. In world history, he said, the only women they studied were a few royals, such as Marie Antoinette and Catherine of Aragon.

The problem could be that most of his social studies courses haven't gotten to the 20th century, a problem Mr. Vetter acknowledges.

"We really want to focus on the 20th century," he said. In some cases, he said, "students had no formal U.S. history beyond the Civil War."

Teachers will begin leaving the last nine weeks of U.S. history free to discuss 1945 to the present, Mr. Vetter said.

Of course, that will mean less depth on other periods, but something will have to give.

Not all electives are dying. Students are flocking to psychology and graphic arts courses, said Peter B. McDowell, director of secondary education.

Science classes such as ecology have eclipsed social studies as the most popular electives.

Mr. McDowell said students are loading up on science, taking more than the three required courses for a high school diploma.

At Westminster High School, ecology is extremely popular, Jay said.

"It's a neat class," he said. "You do tests scientists do. You go outside and do stream tests, take field trips to Catoctin, go hiking. It's an outside class.

"Ecology has a good reputation," he said.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad