Yoga fight highlights ABCs of innovation: Area school officials weigh challenges of building programs

A+program+introducing+yoga+in+Encinitas+schools+resulted+in+a+lawsuit%2C+which+the+Encinitas+Union+School+District+ultimately+won.+%28North+Coast+Current+photo+illustration%29

A program introducing yoga in Encinitas schools resulted in a lawsuit, which the Encinitas Union School District ultimately won. (North Coast Current photo illustration)

Paige Nelson

In wrapping up a lawsuit that brought national media attention to Encinitas in recent months, Judge John Meyer of the San Diego Superior Court ruled yoga fit for public schools.

Encinitas Union School District Superintendent Timothy Baird said it’s the first districtwide yoga program and also quite possibly the first lawsuit of its kind.

The judge made the ruling July 1.

Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock sued the district earlier this year, claiming the Ashtanga yoga classes were religious in nature and inappropriate for public schools. Attorney Dean Broyles of the National Center for Law and Policy filed the lawsuit on the grounds the program violated the separation of church and state.

In the controversy’s wake, school leaders in the region are assessing the challenges that come with developing innovative programs for children.

“There’s always the possibility when you do something different that not everyone is going to agree with it,” Baird said. “You can prepare all you want, but it only takes one person to bring a lawsuit.”

Broyles didn’t respond to messages seeking comment for this story, but told U-T San Diego he plans to appeal the decision.

Yoga program moves forward

Baird said regardless of whether the parents decide to appeal the decision, the district plans to move forward with the program — and it’s doing just that.

At a school board meeting July 31, the district Board of Trustees accepted an additional $1.4 million grant from the Sonima Foundation to further expand the program. The organization initially gave more than $500,000 to start it.

The new funds will allow the district to hire two yoga instructors for each school, increasing the number of teachers from 10 to 18.

“I think we’ve tried very hard to make it clear the district was in charge of the entire yoga program,” Baird said. “The program was designed to meet the needs of the district, not to carry out some mission.”

The school district initially received a $533,000 grant from the Sonima Foundation, formerly known as the Jois Foundation, to fund the program.

The grant covered the cost of the program’s setup, as well as a three-year study about the benefits of yoga in schools. To help pay for more teachers and unprecedented expenses, the foundation increased its support to $700,000.

“I would say most of our parents think it’s a very good program,” Baird said. “Many, many more than who had concerns about it.”

Baird said the legal struggle has been a learning opportunity for the district about the implementation of new programs in schools.

“We’ve had a lot of innovative programs introduced at our schools,” Baird said, “but most of them don’t create this kind of push-back.”
Other programs, such as the Encinitas district’s one-on-one iPad program in elementary schools, have received positive feedback, Baird said.

But Baird said he doesn’t think the yoga program generated much controversy to begin with, considering “98 percent of parents love the health and wellness program.” He said so far about 30 families have opted out.

Support and strategy

“Any new program can generate concerns, and even small changes to a well-established program can result in a heated debate,” said Terry Decker, assistant superintendent of the Solana Beach School District.

Decker said part of the challenge in implementing any new program is building support from the beginning.

“Ongoing communication is essential to long-term support,” Decker said. “Even if you have developed the needed support, it can take time for people to adjust to something new.”

Holly Palmer, executive assistant to the superintendent of the Del Mar Union School District, said it’s important for administrators to have a very clear and strategic plan when implementing new programs.

Palmer said Del Mar plans to introduce a one-on-one Chromebook laptop initiative in six of its schools in grades four through six. She also emphasized the importance of keeping communication lines open.

“Parent’s don’t like surprises — we make sure we’re very clear what purpose the program would serve,” Palmer said.

Baird said after all the media attention the yoga lawsuit received, he wouldn’t be surprised to see other districts moving in the same direction.

Palmer said Del Mar currently doesn’t have plans to bring yoga into schools, but would “never say they wouldn’t consider it.”

Decker said Solana Beach does not have plans to introduce yoga into the curriculum.

Paige Nelson is a North County freelance writer