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updated: 6/24/2014 10:45 AM

U.S. schools develop a nicer version of gym class

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  • Miesha Thompson teaches archery to students at Roosevelt High School in Washington.

      Miesha Thompson teaches archery to students at Roosevelt High School in Washington.
    Astrid Riecken /Photo for The Washington Post

  • In this file photo, Hersey High School students run during a workout in gym class in Arlington Heights. There is a trend away from focusing on the mile run in school fitness testing.

      In this file photo, Hersey High School students run during a workout in gym class in Arlington Heights. There is a trend away from focusing on the mile run in school fitness testing.
    Daily Herald File photo/2005

  • Shante Crawford, 17, takes part in archery during a physical education class at Roosevelt High School in Washington.

      Shante Crawford, 17, takes part in archery during a physical education class at Roosevelt High School in Washington.
    Astrid Riecken /Photo for The Washington Post

  • In this file photo, Hersey High School students do a cardio workout while others work with weights. The "New P.E." focuses on personal fitness plans and target heart-rate zones.

      In this file photo, Hersey High School students do a cardio workout while others work with weights. The "New P.E." focuses on personal fitness plans and target heart-rate zones.
    Daily Herald File photo/2005

 
By Michael Alison Chandler
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- The cavernous gymnasium at Patriot High School can be intimidating for 15-year-old Kristin Ansah. When students break out the hockey sticks before gym class, she ducks for cover.

"I don't work out," she said. "I don't play sports."

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But Kristin looks forward to her physical education classes, because her teachers let her choose what she wants to play. During the first unit, she bypassed football and tennis for jump-rope games with her friends. "It reminded me of my childhood," she said.

The choice program at the school in Prince William County, Virginia, is part of a national effort to mobilize a generation that has been labeled the most sedentary in the nation's history. It is part of a major shift in physical education to reverse the trend of inertia, with gym teachers working harder to make sure that their classes don't appeal just to the most athletic students while the rest of the kids in school-issued shorts are left sitting on the sidelines.

"The country depends on us to do something different than what we have been doing," said Dolly Lambdin, president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE). "We cared too much about who is the best, who can do the most pushups, and not nearly enough about what it means to be healthy and physically active for a lifetime."

"The New P.E.," as it's often called, is a nicer P.E.

Out are dodgeball and other sports that use kids as targets; contests that reward students who are the strongest; and exercise doled out (or withheld) as a form of punishment: "Still talking? Four more laps!"

In are personal fitness plans, target heart-rate zones, and sports that play to different strengths and introduce students to activities that they can pursue across a lifetime. "Physically literate" and "lifelong movers" are buzzwords of the New P.E.

Nearly one out of every three U.S. children is overweight or obese, a rate that has tripled in the past three decades.

Students are less likely to walk to school or play outside before dinner, and they are more likely to spend hours in front of a television or computer screen. Many advocates see physical education, with its potential to reach 56 million students, as a key way to influence behavior during and after the school day.

The District of Columbia public school system received a federal grant to introduce students to more "lifetime physical activities," said Heather Holaday, the health and physical education program manager for D.C. schools.

Archery is one of many sports, including rock climbing, fly fishing and yoga, that District of Columbia schools are now offering as they try to up the activity level of a wider range of students. Archery -- popularized in the "Hunger Games" movies -- has egalitarian appeal, Holaday said.

"You could be standing next to the most athletic person in your class and have a chance to be successful," she said.

Some of Miesha Thompson's physical education students at Roosevelt Senior High School in Washington were skeptical as they went through an 11-step introduction to archery one day this spring.

"Bows and arrows?" said freshman Karlos Kinney, eyebrows raised. Thirty minutes later, any grumbling was drowned out by the sound of whap! whap! followed by cheers and "I got it in the red!"

The D.C. school district is also investing in technology, including heart monitors, that teach students how their bodies respond to exercise and give them a picture of how hard they are working. The monitors also help teachers evaluate students based on effort rather than on how fast they are moving.

School districts across the country are adopting different approaches to introducing lasting exercise habits.

In Prince George's County, Maryland, high school students take a required class called "Your Personal Fitness," during which they create individual plans with activities they could pursue outside of school such as zumba or walking around the neighborhood.

And a Fairfax County, Virginia, program is outfitting students with pedometers so they can analyze how much exercise they are getting during their daily lives.

First lady Michelle Obama gave the effort a big boost in recent years with her campaign to get kids moving. Last year, she launched a schools-based program to increase physical activity throughout the school day with a goal of 60 minutes of exercise per day, which is the amount recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. An Institute of Medicine report estimates that at least half of students fall short of that amount.

The efforts come as physical education programs struggle for time and resources, overshadowed by growing academic demands. In a 2007 survey of school administrators, 44 percent reported cutting time from physical education and recess, as well as other subjects, to increase reading and math instruction following the passage of the No Child Left Behind law.

Advocates point to growing evidence that shows a connection between exercise and academic performance. But most state and local regulations are weak when it comes to what federal law considers a nonessential subject.

Just six states require elementary schools to provide at least 150 minutes of physical education a week, as recommended by the physical educators' association. Just 4 percent of laws require middle or high schools to offer the recommended 225 minutes weekly, according to a state survey by researchers at the Bridging the Gap Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Illinois was the first state in the nation to require daily P.E. for all students.

In 2012, the state of Illinois created the Enhance Physical Education Task Force to promote and recommend enhanced physical education programs that can be integrated with a broader wellness strategy and health curriculum in elementary and secondary schools in the state. In August of 2013, the task force submitted its recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly.

In these recommendations, the task force outlined elements of "outdated P.E. programs" such as those that focus on skills to play team games such as baseball and football; that promote competition and are done in large groups.

In comparison, "enhanced P.E. programs" are done in small groups, focusing on cooperation and stress physical competence and cognitive understanding about physical activity so students can be active for a lifetime.

On the national level, the "New PE" has a new official test that yields reams of data used to evaluate programs, shape instruction and help students set fitness goals.

The Presidential Physical Fitness Test, a mainstay of gym classes for decades, was officially retired last school year. The contest rewarded students and schools if they scored in the 85th percentile or higher in categories such as curl-ups, pushups and the mile run.

The new president-sponsored test, the Fitnessgram, evaluates students according to their personal progress and research-based targets of optimal healthy fitness levels for each age and gender. Some school districts throughout the country years ago switched to the new test, which was originally designed in 1982. The categories are similar, though there is a trend away from the mile run.

With the mile, the kids who are the least fit are the last to finish, said Cheryl Richardson, senior director of member engagement and programming for SHAPE. The more popular test now is a goal-based, back-and-forth shuttle run across the gym, and the kids who are the most fit tend to run more times -- and be the last to finish.

"It changes the tone from a hurry-up-and-finish to a how-long-can-you-go?"
Some people are wary of the changes in physical education, worrying that the cultural shift could serve to soften the nation's children.

"It's becoming too politically correct," said Dennis Senibaldi, a school board member in Windham, New Hampshire, who advocated against a policy in his district to ban dodgeball last year.

"We want to teach kids you don't always get first place, you don't always get a trophy. … My son didn't make the seventh-grade soccer team. Should we get rid of the soccer program because not everyone made it?"

Even though the new tests are geared to be less competitive, many students still dread them.

"Just exempt me now. I can't do it," Kristin Ansah told her teacher at Patriot High School in Bristow, Virginia, on the spring morning she had to take her push-up test. At the beginning of the year, she completed five push-ups before collapsing.

When her teacher, Charles Porterfield, showed no mercy, she reluctantly lined up with the other girls against the wall.

"Backs nice and flat. Down 90 degrees," Porterfield prompted. "Think about the number you got last time and try a little harder this time."

A recording turned on. "Ready? Begin," the voice droned. "Down, up one. Down, up two. Down, up three."

"Do as many as you can, literally till your arms are shaking and you can't do any more," Porterfield said.

Kristin made it past five, then six, then seven, before finally stopping at eight.

A regional soccer star in her class kept going long after everyone else had stoped, surpassing 60 push-ups. But Kristin was happy with her number.

"I improved," she said.

• Daily Herald writer Melissa Hollander contributed to this story.

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