Is learning to sew an important experience for Riverside junior high students? Or has the curriculum that served as the foundation for what used to be known as “home ec” now obsolete?

Those questions are at the center of a debate within Riverside School District 96 as administrators and board members try to settle on a direction for what is now the Family Consumer Science (FCS) curriculum at Hauser Junior High.

“We know what we have in place now is not adequate,” said Superintendent Dr. David Bonnette. “If we want to invest in change we have to make sure that it’s viable for the future.”

Sixth and seventh grade students are required to take nine weeks of FCS, which is one of the four “exploratory” curriculums the school offers. Students, on a rotating basis, also experience exploratories in art, industrial technology and music. Eighth graders, meanwhile, can choose two of the four exploratories, which run for a semester each.

Two years ago, Hauser revamped the industrial technology curriculum, transforming the traditional “wood shop” class into one that now includes modular computer labs that expose students to robotics and aeronautics.

“This is really the logical next step,” said Hauser Principal Joel Benton about the district’s current focus on FCS. “There’s a need for a shift.”

At issue is just how dramatic that shift will be. Last week, the school board’s Education Committee met to discuss a proposed new FCS curriculum for the 2005-06 school year, the result of months of research by both Benton and Daniel Johnson, administrative assistant/band director at Hauser.

The proposal maintained many of the aspects of the current FCS curriculum, such as cooking, sewing, cleaning and child care. However, it expanded the scope to include nutrition, a greater emphasis on consumer education, fashion and interior design.

In addition, the new curriculum calls for a more interdisciplinary approach that would feature lessons that would be taught in conjunction with school counselors, art faculty and industrial technology faculty.

Benton said that after many years of talking with parents about the FCS curriculum, it was his feeling that there was a general wish to continue including FCS as an exploratory at Hauser, although the curriculum and facility needed to be updated.

“I went about this … from the standpoint of a parent,” said Benton, “I have a seventh and eighth grader, and [considered] what I’d like those two boys to know how to do. That fits pretty well with what we’ve outlined here.”

But school board President Cheryl Berdelle questioned the relevance of parts of the revised FCS curriculum.

“I see real problems with what’s proposed for 2005-05,” Berdelle said. “I think we should be moving as fast as we can away from cooking and cleaning. They are things of the past. I need to know what we need to teach and why. When we say students need to know how to decorate a house, I don’t get that.”

Benton and Bonnette argued that the material covered in the FCS curriculum may be the students’ last exposure to it, since few opt to take similar classes on the high school level. According to Benton, just 5 to 10 percent of Riverside-Brookfield High School students select food/child care classes as electives.

“It’s kind of a last opportunity for exposure … to some of these areas,” Bonnette said.

Berdelle, however, was not convinced.

“I have a pretty strong opinion on whether there should be a first exposure,” Berdelle said. “I want to move quickly in a progressive way. Sewing buttons and filling muffin cups are not what we need to be doing.”

Education Committee members wondered whether dedicating resources to the FCS program might preclude other exploratory options from being investigated.

“One of my concerns is that if we do this, then we can’t do anything else,” said Jensen, who suggested that drama, speech, computer science and dance might be other subjects for elective study. “This is our opportunity [to teach] valuable life skills. If we thought there were other important electives to enrich students, could we do that additionally?”

Benton replied that he did think that was possible, although “it will take a great amount of study and hard work to offer an expanded exploratory menu for next year.”

If the FCS curriculum at Hauser is to be changed in any significant way for the 2005-06 school year, time is running out for making plans. The Education Committee will meet again April 12 before the full board takes up the issue at its April 19 meeting.

Should the proposed curriculum be adopted by the board, the FCS classroom would undergo a significant renovation that would include installing new cabinets, countertops and appliances.

When the school updated the industrial technology room, it cost the district approximately $150,000 for computer modules and reconfiguring the room to address life/safety issues.

School officials didn’t put a price tag on a potential renovation of the FCS room at Hauser. However, a renovation of the consumer sciences room at S.E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield during the 2003-04 school year cost over $100,000.

If board members are unable to agree to a future direction for the FCS program in April, school administrators could opt to simply replace some equipment or simply leave the program as it is for another year.

“I don’t think this can happen in a month … but I don’t want to tread water for another year,” Jensen said. “We still don’t know what we want.”