May 17, 2015

Las Lomas students urged to skip Common Core tests; Opt-Out movement hits the East Bay

I have to confess that I have been woefully ignorant about all the fury and debate surrounding the new Common Core standards. Maybe it's because my son is a junior and he has less than two years left in which K-12 curriculum will have any bearing on his academic life. 

Nonetheless, I found myself doing a crash course on Common Core this weekend and an opposing Opt-Out Movement after my son came home Friday afternoon with a flier that had apparently been distributed at or near his campus. 

Since reading this flier and starting my crash course, my head is spinning, because, yes, there is lots of spin surrounding Common Core – and conspiracy theories, and misleading information as well as politicking, analysis, history and passionate debate on all sides about what's best for student learning and the state of American education.

My knowledge is still pretty incomplete but here are things I’ve cobbled together so far, starting with that flier.

Dated Friday, May 15, the flier explained that Common Core standardized testing, also known as Smarter Balanced testing, was to start Monday, and it urged Las Lomas juniors students to ask their parents to let them skip it. The tests would be administered this coming week -- two hours, Monday through Friday, starting at 8 a.m. 

"Remember," it said, "that we, as students, have a voice -- our education, of course."The flier then came with dire warnings about the tests, including "intimidation" tactics: "If you're unsure about optiing out, consider that a majority of teachers, students, instructors and alumni are opposed to such testing. ... Do not allow the school to 'intimidate' you into taking this test -- having seen such intimidation tactics used before against certain teachers -- the decision is entirely between you and your parents."

And because the technology used in the tests, and the tests themselves, are apparently new and experimental, the flier said, "many have gun to label the class of 2016 as the "guinea pig batch" for the testing.

How much is any of this true? Well … in trying to figure that out, I first had to brush up on some Common Core basics.

Common Core tests, known as Smarter Balanced assessments, began rolling out in California in March, according to EdSource. They are administered to students in grades 3-8 and 11, and they involve a battery of tests in English language arts and math that is designed to assess how well students are doing in those subjects, based on instruction they've received in Common Core standards. 

EdSource says the major instructional changes from Common Core include: a substantial increase in the amount of non-fiction reading and writing, with students expected to learn how to use evidence to back up written and oral arguments; a greater emphasis on collaborative activities; and the expectation that math students will not only be able to solve problems but explain how they did so.

All that sounds good. As a friend, who is much more knowledgeable about educational policy and curriculum, told me, Common Core is expected "to educate our children to do more critical thinking and problem solving, which was missing in the education that my two children and your son have just spent the past 12 years engaged in." 

Still, opposition to Common Core -- or really to the tests rolling out this year -- has been growing. The Associated Press reports that thousands of students across the country, with permission of their parents, are refusing to take the tests. 

The Opt-Out movement has just hit California, notably in districts with similar demographics to the Acalanes Union High School District.

EdSource reports that half of juniors at an affluent high school in Los Angeles County -- the Palos Verdes High School -- refused to take the test last month. Over in Palo Alto, about half of juniors at both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools also opted out, according to Palo Alto Online. 

I had been familiar with Tea Party and Republican opposition to the Common Core roll-out, with activists calling it "Obama-core." In their mind, Common Core is a federal intrusion by a Democratic administration to twist public education for a certain political agenda.

Actually, I suspect that the flier distributed to Las Lomas students was produced by Opt-Out activists with ties to conservative groups. I could be wrong, of course, but some of the language and citations of certain Education Code sections, which they say give students the right to opt out, carry a hint of the misleading hyperbole that I've found typical of certain groups -- notably the Pacific Justice Institute, the conservative legal organization that was heavily involved in the recent, controversial effort by a small group of parents to ban Planned Parenthood from teaching sex education courses in the Acalanes Union High School District. 

But Pacific Justice Institute aside, I have also learned that the growing Opt-Out movement spans political agendas.  

"The Common Core standards have both allies and opponents on the right," says education historian Diane Ravitch in a speech to the Modern Language Association in January. "Tea Party groups at the grassroots level oppose the standards, claiming they will lead to a federal takeover of education. The standards also have allies and opponents on the left." 

The Opt-Out Movement is reaching non-Tea Party types in several ways.

First of all, it seems to have a huge appeal for parents and education experts, like Ravitch, who have become weary of what they believe is a high-stakes, standardized-testing culture that has taken over American K-12 education. 

Ravitch's speech raises concerns about how Common Core owes its history to George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama's Race to the Top federal initiatives. Those in turn were a response to the perception by politicians from the left and right, education policy makers and business leaders that American public education is a "major disaster" that won’t produce a globally competitive future workforce. The only salvation, these worriers believe, is a combination of school choice -- charter schools and vouchers -- and national standards and standardized testing. This testing, it is believed, will provide the data necessary to judge school quality and student achievement in order to make improvements.

But the result of this kind of thinking has been "a punitive regime of standardized testing on schools," Ravitch says. Both initiatives have pushed teachers to "teach to the tests,” which has been demoralizing for them and harmful to true student achievement. She adds: "No other nation in the world has inflicted so many changes or imposed so many mandates on its teachers and public schools as we have in the past dozen years. No other nation tests eery student every year as we do. ... Our students are the most over-tested in the world."

Another concern Common Core critics cite is that it is yet another expensive and largely untested and improperly vetted initiative of the education industrial complex, an initiative driven by corporations, philanthropies and business leaders, notably Bill Gates, with agendas driven by ego, ideology, political agendas, greed or a combination of all four.

A June 2014 Washington Post article, "How Bill Gates pulled off the Common Core revolution" says that Gates, through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, accomplished one of the "swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history. 

"The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn’t just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards," the story says. "With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes."

The foundation spread money across the political spectrum, including to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education, which received about $5.2 million from the Gates Foundation since 2010. The Gates foundation also bankrolled, to the tune of almost $1 million, a think tank policy study that gave high marks to Common Core and said it was "very superior" to existing state standards." 

Common Core critics, including some teachers, question why someone like Bill Gates, who dropped out of college  and has no degree or training in education, gets to have so much influence over a national education policy. Is it just because he's really rich? These same critics say Gates' Microsoft Corporation and Pearson, the world’s largest educational publisher, stand to profit from selling the technology needed to administer Common Core testing to the nation's 15,000 school districts.

And, of course, with the Jeb Bush role in all this, Common Core has become a contentious issue in the 2016 presidential election with Bush taking heat from Fox News and other conservative outlets for his support.  

And there’s still more swirling around all this, including fears that are stoked in an American society that has become hyper-aware of the extent to which our national government and global corporations like Facebook and Google have used technology to gain access to our personal information for various purposes.

Opt-Out supporters in Palo Verdes said they were concerned the privacy of student data collected electronically during the tests. 

The flier distributed to Las Lomas students adds to those fears. In citing Education Code sections that give students the right to skip the tests, the wording of these sections could lead to the false impression that the data collected includes information about student's personal beliefs, and practices in sex, family life, morality and religion.  

No, the Smarter Balanced tests won’t be collecting that kind of personal data, and no private student data will go into any national database, according to a story in the Miami Herald.

"Bottom line,” the Herald story says, “states have been collecting data on students -- and sharing it in the aggregate with the U.S. Department of Education -- long before Common Core.”

While school districts collect students' names, the classes in which they are enrolled, their reading and math proficiency and whether they graduated on time, student names and other personal data isn't shared with the federal government, the story says. 

Probably the real, bottom-line issue for Las Lomas parents and juniors is how relevant this test is for individual student learning and their efforts to prepare for the future, including college. 

For one thing, the tests will take up more than eight hours of class time this coming week.

And could 11th graders use that time more productively, especially if they haven’t had much exposure to the Common Core learning standards on which they will be tested?

Relevance was another big issue for parents and students at Palos Verdes High School. Ninety-eight percent of students there go to college, according to  EdSource, and some parents and students questioned how taking this test will help students' achieve their college-bound goals. The Palos Verdes superintendent said 11th graders opting out used that time to study for Advanced Placement tests. 

My savvy friend said: "I feel the test results will be meaningless to judge the Common Core until the current second, third and fourth graders are freshmen in high school when they've been within the Common Core educational system for the length of their education ... unless I am missing something." 

It has been said that one academic benefit for juniors taking the test is that those who perform at "Achievement Level 4" will be exempt from taking placement courses at California State University or community college campuses that determine whether they can skip remedial courses. But the Ed-Source story says there are other ways for students to demonstrate they don't need to take remedial classes once they get to those schools. 

Opt-Out activitists, I've learned, have been very strategic in all parts of the country in taking their message directly to 11th-grade students. Students are getting the message via fliers like the one distributed to Las Lomas students or through Facebook posts. You could say that these students have reached an age when they want to have a lot of input on how they will spend their academic time. 

As I said, I am new to all this, and I’m not sure what I think. 

It will be interesting to see how many 11th graders at Las Lomas or other schools in the Acalanes Union High School District received these fliers and whether they will buy the message and opt out, whether the information will raise questions and thoughtful discussion in their families, or whether the parents and their kids will decide to ignore the fliers and just do the tests. 

And just because a percentage of students skip the tests, does that challenge the fundamental value of Common Core? Probably not. My friend, who has concerns about Bill Gates' involvement and the profit-making motives behind aspects of Common Core's implementation, still has seen value in the standards being adopted, at least locally. 

She has seen teachers being "reinvigorated" by Common Core. "Many of those who were complacent in their teaching are now being challenged and required to reinvest in their work and those who aren't up to the test will retire and leave the teaching profession," she says. "That is a win-win for our students."

May 3, 2015

So we have Mean Girls, but what about Mean Moms?

Yes, apparently it's true. The catty, sneaky, back-stabbing style of "girl world" fighting that's prevalent in films like Mean Girls and Heathers starts much younger than high school or even middle school. It starts young -- preschool young.

I recently published this story in the Contra Costa Times, which has experts proposing that "relational aggression" -- as opposed to the punching, shoving and physical aggression among boys -- is a daily reality for some girls, including some as young as 3 to 5.

In gathering real people's stories, I heard from a number of parents, some from here in Walnut Creek, about their daughters' experiences with mean girls at school.

But there is one fascinating sub-plot that I didn't have space to explore. It's apparently a related phenomenon: the prevalence of Mean Moms.

Several people told me about Mean Moms at their kids' elementary, middle and high schools. I recently and inadvertently ran into one of these High School Mean Moms myself. And, these parents said, these Mean Moms very likely role model the clique-ish, exclusionary, bratty behavior exhibited by their kids, from preschool to high school.

As it happens, Mean Moms is the subject of a new film in development starring Jennifer Aniston. It's about a happily married mother of two who moves from a small town to affluent suburbs and runs into the world of "competitive parenting." The story comes form the book Queen Been Moms and Kingpin Dads, penned by Rosalind Wiseman. It's something of a sequel to her book Queen Bees and Wannabees, which was adapted into Tina Fey's hit 2004 film comedy Mean Girls. (And despite what this poster shows, Sandra Bullock and Cameron Diaz are not involved in the project.)

Not long ago, Mean Mom behavior was rampant at one Walnut Creek elementary school, a source I'll call Anna, told me. It reflected the extent to which Mean Girl behavior had become a huge issue at the school, so much so that, according to Anna: "the principal had all the girls by the time they were in fifth grade meeting the counselor once a month."

Anna added: "I recall (the principal) saying several times how uniquely 'mean' our girls were to each other."

Unfortunately, the principal couldn't mandate meetings for these girls' mothers. Anna definitely saw a link to the behavior of certain girls and their mothers: "One of the things that struck me about this school during the time was that the moms themselves were very cliquey and seemed to encourage this behavior with their girls."

According to Anna, there were the two moms in particular, whom I'll call "Kris" and "Bethany." They became friends while their daughters were in kindergarten. When a third girl wanted to schedule a playdate with Kris's daughter, Kim, Kris said no, that Kim didn't need friends other than "Bryn," Bethany's precious little girl.

For most of elementary school, Kim and Bryn would sometimes allow other girls into their circle but would exclude many others. But by fifth grade, Kim and Bryn were no longer friends, which left Kim herself vulnerable to bullying. Some of us might think, good, Kim's getting a dose of her own poison, but bullying is bullying and it's never right.

Anna also told me about the case of Girl Scout Mom, who was also active in the PTA. I guess she was a Queen Bee/Regina George type with a more outwardly altruistic, public service bent. (Regina George is the teen Queen Bee character played by Rachel McAdams in the film Mean Girls.) Cynical me has seen plenty of socially aggressive types who often try to attain power and influence anyway they can, and they often do it by veiling their power-hungry impulses with "good works."

Anyway, Girl Scout Mom liked to get together with other moms she favored and dish about some of the little girls in the class. In a divide-and-conquer move that psychologists and child development researchers say is popular among socially aggressive females, Girl Scout Mom split the troop in two and tried to prevent little girls she didn't like from joining her trop.

It's no surprise, Anna says, that Girl Scout Mom's daughter was a pretty mean specimen during elementary and middle school and is still at it in high school.

Speaking of high school, while I was working on this story, I was alerted to some Mean Mom stuff and parent cliquishness stuff going on at my son's high school.

It was startling to hear. For one thing, I graduated from high school some years ago (more years than I'll recount here), and had come to think, naively so, that all this popularity and cliquishness crap around a high school community was something that the kids may have to put up with. But supposedly, you would think, that the parents -- people my age -- have grown out of this.

But I learned that's not entirely case: there are a few parents who seem to be totally caught up in the clique-y-ness going on at their kids' high school. They have their social groups that may have formed way back in their neighborhoods or around swim clubs or traveling soccer teams. They continue to bond over their kids' activities. They might sit together at football games or other events or head leadership committees for fundraisers or other school events. It may be a case of parents wanting to do their best to ensure a healthy, happy educational experience for their sons and daughters. Or, it's another version of parents trying to live out their hopes and dreams through their kids.

I'm not part of the Popular Parent Crowd, if there is such a thing. I'd say that most of the  parents who seem to be part of this group come across as nice and genuinely interested in doing good things for the school, the kids and the community. Without them and the work they do, the school probably wouldn't have money to fund school sports, and the students wouldn't have help putting on their proms and senior all-nighters.

Then again, I was talking to one high school mother I'll call Jane who moved to this area a couple years ago when her son was a freshman. She had been a long-time school volunteer back in the Midwest and had plenty of professional fund-raising, event-programming experience. At back-to-school meetings and the like, she was exhorted to get involved, volunteer, put in time.

She put her name on various sign up sheets, but never heard back.

Certainly, she received emails asking her to sign up to bring dishes to sports group gatherings or to donate a few hours to set up for proms or other events. But she never heard from anyone who was interested in mining any of her knowledge or expertise on planning events or building community good will.

In some ways, the indifferent shoulder this mother received reminds me of something I heard at a national conference for dad bloggers a couple months ago. A male Facebook executive said he was routinely shut out of opportunities for leadership roles in volunteering at his kids' private San Francisco school because he was a working dad -- and not part of a long-term moms' school volunteer coterie.

He said dads were mostly called on to bring their tool kits and build stuff -- sets for plays or snack shacks for football games.

His story reminded me of Jane's story. She was left to wonder if she was being sidelined for certain types of school involvement because she and her family were new to the area, which meant her kids hadn't grown up in certain neighborhoods, attending certain schools, or, in the case of Walnut Creek, devoting their summers at certain community swim clubs.

At around the same time, my Mean Mom encounter occurred, ironically or not, when I was reporting on the Mean Moms story.

One night, this woman, whom I never met, lit into me via social media, accusing me of "ranting" about a certain topic of local interest. Yes, I have been known to rant. I'm an occasional blogger, after all, and ranting is what we bloggers sometimes do. I admit I picked the wrong context in this case. That's my bad. Anyway, this mother told me I was being ridiculous, and maybe I was. But then, she said took things too far, by saying disparaging things about my "kids" (I only have one) and me professionally.

What was curious is that over the next few days, I was contacted by other parents who saw her posts and were disturbed by her comments. "I have no desire to know her," one friend wrote.

Another friend, who's pretty enmeshed in the school/parent/volunteer community, warned me I should probably watch my back, because apparently this woman is effectively Popular High School Mom. She's super-involved, and in the Popular Parent Crowd. She may be like Girl Scout Mom in that she veils certain power-hungry impulses in good works, hosting events or donating to education funding efforts -- and getting her name prominently listed in foundation newsletters. So, her "good works" and Popular Mom status give her the power, according to this friend, to decide if certain parents will be included or shut out of certain volunteer committees.

I have no idea if any of these claims about Popular High School Mom are true, but it was amazing  to learn that there was a parent in the school who had gained this kind of Mean Girl/Mean Mom  reputation. I thought, really?

It's still curious, weird and disturbing that this kind of stuff goes on. I mostly feel bad for the parents of younger kids -- the ones I wrote about in my Times article -- who are still trying to walk their kids and themselves through the treacherous path of Mean Girls and and general bullying -- as I'm learning  -- the Mean Moms who raise these kids.

April 3, 2015

Parents fight to preserve comprehensive sex education and LGBT rights in their high schools

Parents of the Acalanes Union High School District have launched a petition to preserve comprehensive sex education, taught by Planned Parenthood, in two of their district's high schools.  

As the petition reads, the district is one of the most highly regarded public school districts in California. It prepares its students "to be thriving, thoughtful and responsible members of a global community."

The quality learning at its four schools includes strong sexual health and HIV/AIDS prevention education and support for the rights of its gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students.

Unfortunately, "the district's commitment to excellent sexual health education has been under attack. A small group of parents, backed by organizations with outside interests, are challenging the long standing choice of parent groups at two of the district’s high schools to engage highly trained instructors from Planned Parenthood to provide comprehensive, scientifically & medically accurate, age-appropriate sexual health education to students."

As I've written before, one of those organizations is the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal organization that has been deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It has specialized in combating efforts to protect gay rights and the rights of LGBT youth, especially in California public schools. 

This petition asks the district to continue their strong support for Planned Parenthood’s curriculum, which provides comprehensive, scientifically and medically accurate, age-appropriate sexual health education. 

March 31, 2015

Meanwhile, a story with a happy ending: orphaned cat may find a home

This is the story of cat named Pamela, who had lived all her eight years with an older lady who died very suddenly... Someone who lives in my neighborhood, who was helping with Pamela's adoption posted the following on the community message board, Nextdoor Parkmead, on March 22:

Pamela needs a forever home Pamela is a very pretty, sweet, shy cat. ... She had a very serene life with her person around her most of the time. Pamela was very devoted to her. But her human companion has died very suddenly. 
There is chaos in her once ordered and quiet world. All the stability of her territory is being torn apart, her beloved companion has gone and she is alone. Her home is being disassembled and will shortly be gone as the rent runs out. She is very frightened and disoriented. She has lost her potty box training and sometimes hisses in fear whenever another human tries to approach her. Although she cannot understand what has happened, the other humans that care for her know she needs to find a new forever home with a single person or a retired couple who can provide her a safe, quiet place to live and the loving companionship and support she needs to return to good habits. Creating a new home for Pamela will take time, patience and especially lots of love to guide her back to a trusting and well behaved life. .... Wherever my sister is now, she is very worried about her beloved companion and wants her to find a safe and loving home. 
A number of neighbors posted their hope that Pamela would find a home, and their regrets they couldn't take her themselves because they already have other pets.  At one point, another neighbor posted:

My heart breaks too! I keep watching the posts in hopes someone can take her. My two didn't do well last time I tried to foster a couple of kittens and I work all the time do may not be the best environment for her. Fingers crossed!!
And then some hope about a week ago. A woman indicated that she was interested in learning more about Pamela. And the woman helping with the adoption announced Monday:

Pamela is in a new home on a two week trial. We hope it is her forever home. I'll post when I know for sure.
So, we'll know for sure in two weeks. 

What's with all the white people in Broadway Plaza's promotional renderings?

While trying to make my way around Broadway Plaza this past weekend, as construction on the massive expansion continues, I passed along a temporary walkway to move people from the parking garage to Macy's.

To decorate the walkway, Broadway Plaza has hung renderings of what different parts of the center will look like once redevelopment is finished by the spring of 2017. These images also appear on Broadway Plaza's website. They are promotional and idealized and show gracious walkways, fountains and landscaping and identify a few high-end retailers.

They also shows this landscape populated by attractive, fashionable people -- white people, it appears.

When I first looked at the renderings in person, all I could see were crowds of white faces. And I thought, huh. Really? In 2015? That's the image of Walnut Creek that Broadway Plaza is trying to present? Especially when it no longer represents the population of Walnut Creek, or even of Broadway Plaza shoppers? 

I tried again to look closer at the renderings. I finally zoomed in on one Asian woman -- off in a far right corner of one the pictures. And maybe there were a couple men of color -- possibly African American or Latino -- in other renderings but their faces aren't very prominent, turned away from the viewer or indistinct and in the shadows.

I bring this up at what seems to be an interesting time in what I can only describe as Walnut Creek's identity crisis. And the identities of Walnut Creek and Broadway Plaza are pretty intertwined, as we're repeatedly told in the city's history or hear from city leaders and Broadway Plaza representatives.

The city has been in a frenzy of building and going upscale for the past few years. This frenzy has made the city, to some residents, unlivable because of the crowds, traffic, parking headaches and urbanizing skyline. To others, Walnut Creek seems to be transforming into a place that's unwelcome to anyone who's not well-off. Basically, the complaints go, low-income or working-class people are being priced out of housing and "luxury" developments. Their only purpose to coming into the city is to bus dishes at restaurants, clean residents' houses or do yard work.

UPDATE 4/1: The Contra Costa Times ran this really great story about an extended Latino family who are being forced to leave their low-cost rental housing across Ygnacio Valley Road from BART; their homes will be razed to accommodate 178 new apartments, some which will go for $1,900 to $2,900 a month.

On Valentine's Day, some Walnut Creek restaurants were briefly taken over by a group of protesters who identify with #BlackLiveMatters or the #BlackBrunch movements.  One website said the protesters bullied and harassed white children, while someone participating in the protests posted a tweet, accusing Walnut Creek of building weapons of war against black people by "creating a white utopia."

One Walnut Creek friend was angry that these protesters were singling out the town for being racist or lacking diversity. I agreed that it wasn't fair for Walnut Creek to be singled out; there are plenty of other affluent suburbs around the Bay Area that are even less culturally and economically diverse. I figured the Black Brunch protesters targeted Walnut Creek because it's centrally located in the East Bay suburbs and because of the convenience of getting here via BART.

Still, you can't get around the fact that Walnut Creek is mostly white, according to 2010 Census figures. Seventy-eight percent of us identify as white.

Then again, that's lightly less than 2000, when Walnut Creek was 84 percent white. And, those 2010 figures show that Walnut Creek has become increasingly diverse: 15 percent Asian, 8 percent Hispanic or Latino and 2 percent African-American.

So with these numbers, showing that Walnut Creek is becoming more diverse, I'm wondering what to make of the almost totally white world depicted by the Broadway Plaza renderings. Hmm, is it possible the Black Brunch protesters had seen the "white utopia" these images depict?

It also makes me think Broadway Plaza isn't in touch with the demographics of its own customers. On the day I was at Broadway Plaza, I saw a pretty racially diverse crowd -- not like the crowd in these pictures.

I also keep hearing about how entertainment and retail companies and marketers have come to recognize that diversity sells because ads and entertainment content with a range of characters and stories reaches America's increasingly diverse population.

Sure, it wasn't that long ago that advertising and entertainment, which tends to depict idealized, aspirational views of people and situations, used to almost exclusively present white characters or story lines. That still takes place -- on popular, acclaimed shows like "Man Men," for instance -- but, increasingly those days are dwindling, unless I guess, you're looking at a Broadway Plaza ad.

January 4, 2015

The homophobic "hate group" trying to suppress sex education at Acalanes High School

In catching up on the controversy about sex education classes at my alma mater Acalanes High School, I came across a couple blog posts on the women's interest blog Jezebel. The posts depict our local high school district as being run by a pack of bigoted, homophobic sexual hysterics who are terrified that Planned Parenthood instructors are encouraging ninth-grade students to have sex and to experiment with being gay or transgender.

Lafayette may as well be situated on a “time-space glitch,” wrote Mark Schrayber. “Is there something in the water?”

I'm a 1981 graduate of Acalanes, and my father taught at Acalanes and was superintendent of the Acalanes Union High School District. My son attends another high school in the district. 

Part of me is amused that Lafayette, Walnut Creek (where I live and grew up) and other communities served by the school district have provoked hissy fits by pundits at Fox News and other conservative outlets.

But it's really not something to laugh about. How our kids learn about the mechanics of sexual health and the personal and societal dimensions of sexuality is serious business.

“Sex Education is possibly the most important course that can be taught to adolescents,” writes Acalanes High student Danny Ennis in the Blueprint, the school’s newspaper. “Without this class students would be reliant on awkward ramblings from their parents trying to inform but not condone sex, the lunch table rumor mill, and the wild, wild west of the Internet–so full of good information but also home to much misinformation.”

Adds another Acalanes student, Casey Lee, writing on the website, "My parents NEVER talked to me or taught me about sex. ... Being aware of and comfortable with our bodies and their functions are important messages, and the potential consequences of ignorance are too dangerous." 

Of the parents raising a fuss, some say they just want the district to keep them better informed about the course content. Fair enough. It shouldn't be that hard to work with the district and come up with ways for them to be better informed. 

But others have a basic problem with Planned Parenthood probably because it supports individual choice on abortion and reproductive health. Or, perhaps they have a problem with any program that gets kids talking honestly about sex and sexuality, including issues around consent, readiness for sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. 

In any case, a small group of parents protesting is one thing. But what parents and students in this community should be concerned about is that these parents have allied themselves with the Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento-based legal organization. 

PJI may bill may bill itself as a generalist religious liberty advocacy group, but the organization specializes in combating efforts to protect gay rights and the rights of LGBT youth, especially in California public schools, according to Media Matters.

In fact, PJI is listed as a “hate group” by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, the international nonprofit organization that monitors the activities of hate groups. Other hate groups on the center's list? The Ku Klux Klan and various neo-Nazi and racist skinhead groups.

PJI’s executive director Brad Ducas has become a well-known voice of anti-LGBT "fear mongering," calling homosexuality “dangerous and destructive." He has also represented clients who claim that "ex-gay" therapy is necessary to save youth from "a path of death and destruction,” Media Matters says. 

Ducas gained notoriety during the 2008 battle over California’s Proposition 8. He was filmed at a “Yes on 8” rally, comparing the defeat of marriage equality to the defeat of Nazi Germany. 

I should point out that Lafayette, Moraga, Orinda and Walnut Creek – the towns served by the Acalanes district – are hardly islands of anti-gay social conservatism. Contra Costa County Election results from 2008 showed that voters in these four towns overwhelmingly opposed Proposition 8, which temporarily banned same-sex marriage in California. In Lafayette, the "no on 8" votes outnumbered the "yes" votes 3 to 1. 

The controversy at Acalanes High began in October when a Walnut Creek mother raised concerns about Planned Parenthood teaching the classes, the Contra Costa Times reported. The mother Camille Giglio is said to be an ardent of Planned Parenthood and its pro-choice position. She said she represents a group of likewise concerned parents called No to Irresponsible Sex Education (NOISE). 

She accused Planned Parenthood of recruiting future clients, teenagers who presumably, in her view I guess, will go out and have lots of sex, get pregnant and go to Planned Parenthood for all their abortions. "They're accessing students to find present and future clients without parents understanding what is going on in the classroom," she said. 

The sex education courses for the freshman class took place the week of October 6. It’s the same course that’s been taught at the school for 10 years, Superintendent John Nickerson told the Times. “Our board has long supported comprehensive sexual health and HIV/AID prevention," Nickerson said.

Nickerson and Principal Allison Silvestri told the Times it is common practice to contract this curriculum out with Planned Parenthood because their people are more up-to-date than instructors at the school, and are often more comfortable talking with teenagers about the subject matter. 

Planned Parenthood has been in the business of providing comprehensive sex education for nearly 100 years. The organization says its comprehensive sex education covers a wide array of topics that affect sexuality and sexual health and is grounded in evidence-based, peer-reviewed science. 

Silvestri added that the school gave parents 10 days notice that the unit would be taught and provided information about topics covered. She said the instruction complied with the state Education Code.
Ducas and his PJI swooped in December to raise concerns about specific materials used in the class, which PJI and the NOISE parents said were encouraging ninth-graders to have sex. 

Fox News raised objections that the materials include a checklist entitled "Sex Check! Are You Ready for Sex" which asks students such questions as whether they have condoms and if they could handle a possible infection or pregnancy. Another worksheet reads like a "how-to" on obtaining a possible sexual partner, and offers possible statements like "Do you want to go back to my place?" and "Is it OK if I take my pants off?"

Matt McReynolds, a staff attorney with PJI, said: “I don't think there is any context in which these things are appropriate for 13- and 14-year-olds.”

Hmm. I wonder what professional expertise McReynolds has in sex and health education. Is he aware that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 20 percent of American ninth graders are sexually active? 

I would hazard he's as knowledgeable on the topic as Acalanes student Casey Lee, or Jezebel writer Schrayber who wrote: "Sounds like these worksheets, which literally ask students if they're prepared to face the consequences of an unexpected dalliance behind the bleachers, aren't inappropriate at all." 

But PJI and Fox News had objections on another topic: a gender identity chart called "the Genderbread Person," a figure resembling the holiday cookie that introduces students to concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity and defines terms such as "agender," or "bigender."

Do these parents and their legal allies seriously fear that that their kids will want to try out being gay or transgender because – I don’t know – a Planned Parenthood instructor told them that it’s OK to be gay or transgender.  Really? How bizarre is this line of thinking, given the potential bullying, harassment and rejection that LGBT kids sometimes face in society. Why would any young person go in any of these directions unless they were naturally inclined to do so?

The Times says the Acalanes School board listened to parents and students speaking for and against the course at a December meeting; the district is taking these comments "seriously,"Nickerson told the Times. The board will likely take up the issue again in April or May. PJI has also put in a public records act request to see if there are any other issues it will want to raise.

In the meantime, I want to return again to the points raised by the Acalanes students. Ennis pointed out that there have been numerous studies over the years showing that teenagers who receive comprehensive sex education are less likely to get pregnant or engage in high-risk behavior. 

Teen pregnancy rates in the United States peaked in 1990. Since then, the rates of teen pregnancy, birth and abortion have reached historic lows in all states and among all racial and ethnic groups. Ennis cites a study from the University of Washington showing that teenagers who receive some type of comprehensive sex education are 60 percent less likely to pregnant or get someone else pregnant.
A federal study from 2007 found that abstinence-only programs had “no impacts on rates of sexual abstinence,” Ennis wrote.

The Guttmacher Institute is a policy center that sometimes collaborates with Planned Parenthood, the National Institute of Health and other entities on advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights through research, policy analysis and public education.

In a September 2014 policy review, "What is Behind the Declines in Teen Pregnancy Rates?" the Institute found there is  “clear evidence” that comprehensive sex education programs – the kind advocated by the Acalanes Union High School District and provided by Planned Parenthood – can change behaviors. "Such programs have been shown to delay sexual debut, reduce frequency of sex and number of partners, increase condom or contraceptive use, or reduce sexual risk-taking," the review states. 

Ennis makes a point that perhaps the NOISE parents and their PJI legal advocates prefer to deny: “Sex is not going away. The fact is that humans, especially teenagers, will want to have sex, from as early as 9th grade. Suppressing sex education isn’t just wrong, it’s naive and it’s dangerous.”