By DAVE GYMBURCH Sentinel staff writer

Changing Rome school classes to meet suggested new sex education standards from a national coalition would not be a priority, compared to needs for improving students’ literacy and math performance, says Superintendent Jeffrey P. Simons.

Such changes if pursued should involve parents’ input and be coordinated with state Education Department requirements, Simons said today.

Simons commented, "while health is an important topic for all students to learn about pre-K to 12, we shouldn’t be adding to the curriculum right now as the state wants students to read better and perform mathematics at higher levels." He added, "revising the health curriculum...is not a priority of the district at this time. Our emphasis is on literacy

and mathematics."

Similarly, Camden school Superintendent Jeffrey Bryant said that given the overall "reform effort" already occurring for general education standards, "to add anything else onto it" now would be "extremely challenging." He noted the state Education Department had not forwarded information to school districts nor posted any response online to the new recommendations. The nonbinding suggestions were announced by a group of national health and education organizations.

Compared to the recommendations, sex education in the Rome district is "not taught at that detail...or at that age level" in terms of earlier ages, said Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Sherri Walczak. Among recommendations are for students to achieve several categories of sex-education knowledge by the end of second grade and the end of fifth grade.

In district classrooms, said Simons, "formal health curriculum is taught beginning in middle school and through high school. However, health-related topics such as healthy relationships, nutrition and exercise and bullying are emphasized at all levels." He and Walczak said the state determines health education learning standards for New York’s public schools.

Certain sex education topics are taught in Rome district health classes including high school, said Walczak. while such courses as anatomy and physiology as well as biology address related matters but with more of a "science-based" orientation. The national groups’ recommendations would involve "more detail...than what has been recommended by the New York state Education Department at this time," she added.

In the Camden district, such topics overall have "not been formalized...until middle school and high school," remarked Bryant.

Simons and Bryant parents’ importance in shaping potential changes for presenting sex education. Some matters "should be a parent’s prerogative...addressed by parents on the home front," Bryant commented. Among considerations should be differences among students in "what kids are capable of processing...the same information, the same age," he said.

Simons said "we should...not ignore the role of parents in establishing what information they feel is appropriate to share with their young children regarding some health-related topics. The recommendations of advocacy groups need to be balanced with local community standards as well as ensuring the age appropriateness of lessons that cover certain health topics."

Parents conceivably could be granted the opportunity for students to "opt out" of such classroom topics depending on the extent of changes if they were pursued, Walczak observed. Among precedents for potentially sensitive topics, students can opt not to participate in animal dissections for science classes.

In the Vernon-Verona-Sherrill district, Superintendent Norman Reed said an "abstinence-based" curriculum for health education in grades 8 and 11 has been in place for several years based on input from staff, parents and community members, and curriculum is reviewed annually. He said he would not seek changes at this point "based on an advisory" such as the nonbinding recommendations, and "we would maintain the curriculum we have in place;" it meets health education requirements and also reflects "local values," he commented.

Of the suggested changes, Reed said "we would at least read it...see if there’s any applicability for us...see if other information is forthcoming."