As the current school year draws to a close, Billerica educators are turning their attention to one of the most significant changes planned for the fall semester: a new health curriculum for the town’s youngest students.
Town Meeting voters last month approved a request to appropriate $180,000 to hire three elementary school health teachers and a part-time coordinator who will oversee the district’s elementary health education program and coordinate townwide substance abuse prevention efforts. The vote was 147 in favor and 21 opposed.
In all, the district will add four health teachers for the town’s six elementary schools, since one hire already was included in the operating budget. One of the teachers will be dedicated to Thomas Ditson Elementary, the largest kindergarten-Grade 5 school in the district. The others will be divided among the five remaining elementary schools.
Adding the new teachers will allow the district to teach health and wellness as a stand-alone subject, on par with physical education, music, and art, said Dede Galdston, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Elementary health education is currently being taught by classroom teachers, who have varying degrees of training and expertise in the subject.
“It’s a huge step for us,” said Galdston. “We want to make sure all of our kids have a very strong foundation about how to stay healthy. We’re dealing with a range of issues — from obesity, substance abuse, and dysfunctional families, to children not understanding their place in the world because the world is very complex.”
The district’s plan to adopt a holistic approach to health education has won the support of Police Chief Daniel Rosa and Town Manager John Curran, and Curran called funding the teachers “the single most important article” to be addressed at the May Town Meeting.
At Town Meeting, Rosa said health education is critical to preventing substance abuse, an issue he characterized as “a community problem . . . a society problem.”
“There is no easy answer and there is no magic bullet,” he said. “We are not going to arrest our way out of this problem. It’s my opinion that money spent on prevention efforts will pay off. Incarceration and treatment are infinitely more expensive than prevention.”
According to Galdston, who also serves on the Billerica Substance Abuse Prevention Committee, the new elementary health curriculum will complement local efforts to educate the community about problems with alcohol and drugs.
On June 18, the committee is scheduled to host an information session for parents and caregivers of middle and high school students. The program, facilitated by professionals in the field of addiction, will explore the effects and consequences of gateway drugs — alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco — and help empower parents by teaching them how to effectively communicate with their children. The forum begins at 7 p.m. in the high school auditorium.
“We’ve got to do whatever we can before our kids go off to college, go out into the world, to help them develop the skills they need to make the right choices, the right decisions,” said Galdston.
Billerica is part of a Lowell-based coalition that also includes Chelmsford, Dracut, and Tewksbury that was awarded a $100,000 start-up grant a year ago as part of the Massachusetts Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative Program. Each of the 13 coalitions statewide is tasked with developing a plan to discourage opiate abuse and reduce overdoses.
Meanwhile, Superintendent Timothy Piwowar has decided that the local schools will not have a formal arrangement with the Billerica Project, a nonprofit that offers substance abuse education, prevention, and assistance.
A key element of the group’s efforts focuses on having youths pledge to remain substance-free. The organization also encourages them to serve as role models and volunteer in the community while wearing purple Billerica Project T-shirts.
Piwowar’s decision was based in part on conversations he had with the district’s secondary-school principals and high school coaches.
“Although the argument could be made that there is no harm in asking students to take a pledge such as that proposed, the reality of last year’s experimentation with The Billerica Project [where they spoke with multiple high school athletic teams] proved otherwise,” Piwowar said in a written statement. “I spoke with multiple coaches who reported that after whole teams were given the opportunity to take the pledge en masse, those students who elected not to take the pledge — regardless of their reasoning — reported being unfairly perceived as substance users.
“The unintended consequence is that an activity that was designed to raise positive perceptions for all children produced the opposite effect for some,” he added.
In the wake of Piwowar’s decision, Joyce Higgins, founder of the Billerica Project, has stopped meeting with high school sports teams, but her outreach efforts continue. The Billerica Project works closely with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Billerica, Higgins said, and sponsors sober and supervised youth activities.
“I’m going to continue doing what I’ve been doing for nearly two years,” said Higgins, 40, a mother of three who was inspired to launch the Billerica Project in 2012 after witnessing her brother achieve sobriety following a decade-long struggle with alcoholism.
“My hope is that [Piwowar] will, one day, be open to sitting down with me.”