There are 16 students in Riverhead sophomore Shannon Zeltmann’s AP Physics class. But all but two of the students go without a lunch period each day, she said.
The reason why the kids are skipping lunch? There’s just not enough time in the school day, the sophomore said.
Shannon — along with dozens of other students and parents at Tuesday night’s school board meeting — said they are being forced to choose not just between electives, but between whether to take classes or to have a lunch period at all because of the High School’s eight-period school day.
For nearly two hours at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, the students demanded the board return the district to a nine-period day to save classes that have been dropped or clubs they say are dwindling.
Nicholas Waldron, a cadet with the district’s NJROTC unit, said the unit’s numbers have already dropped by 17 percent because students can’t fit it into their schedules. He fears the day when funding for the program will be in jeopardy.
Both freshman band and freshman orchestras are also down by nearly a third, he said.
“Is it worth watching some of the best programs of this district crumble and disappear?” Nicholas asked. Students gave him a standing ovation after his speech.
Other students told the board they’ve skipped lunch to take the AP courses they want and feel they need to get into college.
“I almost couldn’t go into Calculus B, a class that I love,” said senior Hayley Sheridan, whose voice broke with emotion as she pleaded with the board to add the ninth period back. “I don’t want any other senior, any other future high school seniors, to feel the way I felt.”
Sophomore ROTC cadet Kevin Ruano said he had to do just the opposite. He didn’t want to give up lunch, and so he dropped AP Biology from his schedule so he could eat.
“If you have to choose between lunch and a class, there’s kind of something wrong with the school system,” he said.
Kevin also noted the district’s renovation plans — paid largely through $78 million in bonds — included new rooms for the ROTC and band, rooms that may not be used if the programs continue to dry up.
“What’s the point of spending money on a new ROTC room or a new band room if they’re not going to be there in a few years?” he asked to more applause.
One student didn’t speak to the board, instead asking them to “see” what was happening. He then turned to the crowd of students and asked students who wanted a nine-period day again to stand up. Almost all of the audience did.
Assistant superintendent and former Riverhead High School principal David Wicks said the district originaly had an eight-period day like many other districts. Years ago, the high school extended the day to nine periods day because not all students were getting lunch.
But the district chose to shorten the day to eight periods last year because “hundreds and hundreds” of students were taking multiple study hall periods, Mr. Wicks said. A 2012 News-Review article reported that Ms. Carney noted about half of RHS students only utilized eight periods a day, using the ninth for study hall.
An NJROTC cadet reported concern with the decision at the time, stating that students might not have the time for it with the shortened schedule.
The school made its decision to go down to eight periods as a state-mandated 2 percent tax levy cap has forced many districts to reorganize their teaching programs, though the district said saving money was not the main reason behind the switch.
But high school senior Liara Salgado said the students who took multiple study halls are still doing that this year, despite the shortened day. It’s the students who want more education, not less, who were affected, she said.
“The eight period day only hurts students who care about their education,” she said.
The district did not immediately have information on the number of students taking multiple study halls this year and how that changed from the previous year when there were nine periods in a school day.
Olivia Bozuhoski, an eighth-grader, said was looking forward to taking electives in the High School, but said she’s already planning to drop lunch to fit them all in. She railed against “lazy” students who took many study halls.
“Are you going to let people who don’t care about school affect people who do care about school?” she asked.
Laurie Downs, a longtime board watchdog and recent candidate for the board who videotapes each school board meeting, spoke in support of the students, saying she was proud that so many turned out. She asked the board why students were allowed to take multiple study hall periods.
“They shouldn’t be allowed to take more than one,” she said, adding that was the rule when she was a student.
Superintendent Nancy Carney said “no decision was made lightly,” but also praised the students for bringing their concerns to the board. Ms. Carney said she would meet with the high school administrators to come up with alternatives that would “work for all the students.”
School board president Greg Meyer took the idea one step further, proposing a forum at the high school for students to speak directly to the administrators with their concerns.
“What the outcome is going to be, I can’t tell you. That’s not my job,” he said. “That’s for Ms. Carney and Mr. Wicks to go back to [high school principal] Dr. Regan and his staff to improve things.”
The date for a community forum has not yet been set, but after the meeting ended, students like Ms. Sheridan and senior ‘Aleki Lui said they were looking forward to the forum.
They weren’t happy with the answers they got Tuesday night.