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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 27, 2009
Putting the ‘physical’ back in education: Schools struggle to meet standards
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
The confinement of classrooms and being seated at desks, after summer months of freedom to play outside, will be tempered this year for Berne-Knox-Westerlo elementary students.
This summer, Kelly Smith, who is certified both as a health teacher and a physical education teacher, developed active lessons that classroom teachers can use instead of gym periods.
The school, like many across the state, was in a bind, unable to meet the state requirement of 120 minutes of physical education a week, with a period each school day for children in kindergarten, first, and second grades.
The solution was to have classroom teachers lead their students in activities.
“The teachers panicked at first, asking, ‘How are we going to do this?’” said Kelly. “I don’t want them to panic.”
She’s developed easy-to-follow plans that don’t require equipment and fit in with curriculum, geared for the various grade levels.
The teachers can do the exercises first thing in the morning, or just before lunch, whatever best fits their schedules.
The 10-minute lessons range from tag games incorporating spelling to more elaborately themed games like “California Dreaming.” In that exercise, Kelly explains, students walk across the Golden Gate Bridge or go surfing. When adapted to New York, kids might climb the stairs to the Empire State Building, she said.
Some of Kelly’s booklets outline activities that can take place right in the classroom; others are for outdoors. “It’s up to the teachers what they chose to do,” she said.
Kelly, who earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Ithaca College, will be able to “push into” the classrooms and help teachers who request it. “If kids are physically active, then they can sit down and learn better,” she said. “They are more attentive.”
“A threat to all children”
The State Education Department is pushing its physical education requirements and helping schools to meet them because, says spokesman Jonathan Burman, “The growing culture of overweight and obese Americans is not only a national public health crisis, but a threat to all children.’
He went on, in an e-mail to The Enterprise, “According to the 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted in New York schools, students are progressively becoming overweight. Asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease are some of the health complications suffered by our overweight students, which often detract from their focus on learning.”
In January 2007, the education department issued a field memo on physical education in response to concerns that certain school districts weren’t providing programs that led to the attainment of the state’s learning standards, Burman said.
While there are no penalties for districts that don’t meet the regulations, Burman said, “We expect compliance and work with districts…The goal is to get full compliance.”
He also said, “We do encourage cross-disciplinary efforts…to look at ways to bring physical education into other required areas like math and science.”
“With the adoption of the learning standards,” the field memo says, “physical education has been elevated beyond the physical boundaries of the gymnasium and has become an integral part of a school’s curriculum”
It also says, “Research supports the use of movement and brain-compatible techniques to support the development of thinking skills in students” and it says that recent research shows “a positive relationship between vigorous activity and improved academic performance.”
Finally, the memo states, “Collaboration between the physical education teacher and the elementary classroom teacher can enhance a quality physical education program.”
Elementary students are required to have 120 minutes per week of physical education. Daily instruction is required in kindergarten through third grade to “build a solid foundation for general fitness and healthy lifelong habits,” the memo says. Students in fourth through sixth grade must have instruction at least three times a week. Secondary students must be offered instruction three times a week one semester and two times per week the other semester.
“Rarin’ to go”
The issue was raised at last week’s Guilderland School Board meeting by the board’s newest member, Julie Cuneo. Like BKW, Guilderland has not met the state requirement of daily physical education for its elementary students.
Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton said this week that Guilderland’s five elementary schools provide 120 minutes of physical education each week. But, he said, the district falls short in the primary grades because “We have three days of 40-minute blocks, but preferably they want it every single day.”
Because of the governor’s proposal last year for drastic cuts in state aid to schools, Guilderland’s budget builders decided this was not the year to get into compliance, Singleton said. It would require a 20-percent increase in physical-education staff at the elementary school, Singleton told The Enterprise this week.
Cuneo, a nurse practitioner, told the board about the rejuvenating qualities of outdoor activities and asked about taking “the initiative so it’s expected children go outside.”
“I agree wholeheartedly,” Singleton told her. He said Guilderland teachers are fully aware of the brain research and most elementary students go outside regularly.
Cuneo asked about instituting a policy that would offer rewards to teachers, creating an incentive for them to take their students out.
Board member Judy Slack suggested that could be part of the conversation of extending the school day.
Come fall, the school day will be 25 minutes longer for elementary teachers but not for their students. The problem the district faces as it attempts to lengthen instructional time is transportation.
Almost all of Guilderland’s students are transported in a three-tiered bus system. The high school, middle school, and five elementary schools are each located in different places, and current scheduling is so tight it doesn’t allow for an extra 25 minutes in the elementary-school day, district leaders say; adding more buses to make fewer than three tiers would be costly. The district will hire a consultant this year to conduct a transportation study.
The shape of the school day was considered by a committee in 2006, and 20 minutes were added to the elementary school day for the 2007-08 school year.
Adding another 25 minutes brings the elementary school day in line with the length of the day at the middle school and the high school.
Singleton said this week that “embedded in the prototype” for the longer school day are more “specials” like physical education, art, and music.
“Certain teachers consistently take kids out,” said board member Barbara Fraterrigo. “We do have a lot who don’t take them out.” She suggested teachers could mentor one another.
“A number of studies really reinforce, you think it’s a waste of time, but kids come back in and so much better,” said Fraterrigo, concluding, “Old habits are hard to break.”
Superintendent John McGuire suggested a “conversation with building principals.”
This week, Singleton said he had already met with the elementary school principals.
“They’re rarin’ to go,” he said. “We discussed ways to further promote physical activity on a daily basis,” said Singleton. The principals will use their building cabinets as forums, he said. Each school has a cabinet made up of representative parents, teachers, staff, and administrators.
Through the cabinets, Singleton said, increasing physical activity will be discussed “in the context of each building’s unique needs.”
He pointed out some of the activities already in place at Guilderland’s five elementary schools, like the annual Deer Dash at Guilderland Elementary or the nature trail at Lynnwood Elementary School.
“We really try to look at outdoor space as additional physical-education space,” he said.
Singleton also said, “Weather permitting, students are often outside…They are constantly n the move,” sometimes, he said, with “intentionally less structured play,” similar to the old-fashioned recess.
Singleton stressed, “It’s important that people understand, whether you have a formal physical-education class or not, physical activity can take place.”
He said that has been the philosophy of the district for many, many years. “It’s our goal to maximize the time,” he said of adding more physical education, “but there are so many priorities, it’s a balancing act.”