Volume 73, Number 44 | March 3 - 9, 2004


Chancellor is set to overhaul physical education

By Jill Stern

News Flash: Chancellor Joel Klein is soon to announce a new physical education reform for the Department of Education.

Nancy Lederman, a local expert on the subject and author of the book, “Hit or Miss: Fitness and Sports Opportunities in the New York City Public Schools,” said, “That would be excellent. It means that they are taking physical education seriously. It has to be recognized as important. Not only for those at risk of childhood obesity, but for the health and future habits of all the children.”

The New York Community Trust (along with other concerned New Yorkers) commissioned Lederman and a staff of researchers to study the condition of physical education in New York City public schools. The results painted a bleak portrait of the sports programs in our city.

Physical education has lacked leadership and a unified directive for years. This void ultimately pushed each school to act autonomously with regard to what to offer children. In a study with astonishing findings, Lederman and staff discovered that 41 percent of our elementary schools do not offer regular opportunities for participation to all students. This is doubly shocking when you consider that New York State regulations require a minimum of 120 minutes a week of physical education (daily in the lower grades and two to three times a week in upper grades).

A quick overview of our local elementary schools reflects the results of the study, whereby the physical education programs being offered vary widely. P.S. 234 has a beautiful gym and a couple of playgrounds. Nearby P.S. 150 does not even have a gymnasium. P.S. 41 has a full-time gym program with a link to the nearby YMCA and a joint basketball program. The other Village public elementary school, P.S. 3, does not have a full-time physical education teacher. In P.S. 3’s defense, the school does provide movement classes to all students, but in the past the school had both gym and movement. At P.S. 11, the second-through-fifth graders swim once a week as their physical education.

The benefits of physical education go beyond controlling childhood obesity. Studies have connected activity with well-being. The surgeon general’s 1996 Report on Physical Activity and Health concluded, “Physically active people are healthier than people who are sedentary and physically active children are healthier as well. They are less likely to get sick and as a result, are less likely to miss school.”

Other studies connect academic achievement with activity. The California Department of Education linked children’s physical well-being to their performance on state reading and math tests. Still other advantages of physical activity are raised self-esteem and enhanced social development.

Speculation is that the new reform will be similar to Project Fit and Fitnessgram, programs being used by the California Department of Education. Currently a pilot program is being tested in New York City Regions 5 and 8 and will expand shortly to Regions 10 and 2. “Project Fit’s Physical Best: Physical Education for Lifelong Fitness” is a comprehensive health-related fitness education program of curriculum resources and training certifications created by the Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. It teaches the what-to-do of physical activity and also the why-to-do aspect of activity. The latter is what distinguishes this program from traditional physical education. Fitnessgram was developed by The Cooper Institute of Aerobic Research and is designed to work in conjunction with Physical Best. Fitnessgram is a test that summarizes each student’s fitness level, similar to an academic progress report.

Despite the odds, local schools have been creative with what they are given. P.S. 234 in Tribeca has worked out a schedule where in addition to the once-weekly gym classes, certain grades get additional activity time. Elizabeth Sweeney, P.S. 234’s new assistant principal, said that the kindergarten and first graders get daily yard and snack time as well as a weekly gym period and recess. The fourth and fifth graders get to participate in “Lunch Leagues” twice a week. Lunch Leagues have been organized by their dedicated gym teacher, Andrew Steele. He supervises the kids in basketball games and also in jump-rope competitions. Recently the children challenged the teaching staff to a basketball game, which as a side effect increases school morale.

Jennifer Gillespie, who teaches second grade at P.S. 41, is another teacher who values the importance of physical activity. If you peek into her classroom on any given morning, you will find her and her students doing their morning routine. She exercises with her students every morning in their classroom before they get down to academic work. She compensates for the lack of daily exercise by teaching it herself.

In case Chancellor Klein has still not committed to any definite curriculum, maybe he is interested in using St. Ann’s school as a model. St. Ann’s is a private school in Brooklyn Heights that seems to understand the positive role physical activity can take in education. Shannon Carr, a physical education teacher at St. Ann’s, feels, “With the rise of childhood obesity and the lack of safe outdoor playing space, it is a shame that physical education classes are not being offered in every public school.” At St. Ann’s, first graders have gym and/or dance for a total of five times a week, second and third graders have gym and/or dance for a total of four times a week and fourth and fifth graders have gym three times a week, with dance being an optional fourth period a week.

The jury is still out as to whether the new uniform math and literacy curriculums are good, but a reform in physical education seems like a winner from the start.


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