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In L.A., school district seeks to bring back P.E.

In L.A., school district seeks to bring back P.E.

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At a time when sedentary lifestyles are the norm and childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes are typically described as “epidemics,” the argument for physical education as a way to get kids and teens exercising more seems obvious.

Getting kids out of their chairs isn’t just about warding off chronic disease either. Research has shown that regular work-outs can improve brain function and development, as well as strengthen focus.

But as with music programs and arts education, physical education’s endangered status typically has more to do with over-strained district budgets than a question of worth. Consider the case in the Los Angeles Unified School District, whose board voted 4-2 after a heated discussion Tuesday evening to restore 17 credentialed physical education positions to district elementary schools.

That might sound like a drop in the bucket of the country’s second largest school district, but the plan aims to leverage each P.E. position by having the instructors rotate through a handful of schools where they’ll train regular teachers, co-teach classes and monitor the effort to get kids fit. They’re as much mentors or professional development guides for other teachers as they are P.E. teachers for students.

“It’s a tremendous help,” said Chad Fenwick, physical education advisor for the district, who noted that many regular teachers don’t otherwise have any physical education training to guide them. “They’re apprehensive to take their kids out,” he said, in an interview. “This embeds P.E. with classroom teachers.”

Even with the added instructors, LAUSD has a long way to go to meet fitness targets. California’s education code calls for 200 minutes of physical education per 10 school days for elementary students (an average of 20 minutes a day), while an Institute of Medicine report released in May recommends elementary kids get a 30 minutes a day in P.E. class and a total of 60 minutes a day of “moderate to vigorous activity.”

According to Fenwick, an audit of LAUSD schools found that only about 50 percent of elementary schools even had a physical education schedule. Only about 5 to 10 percent of schools were taking kids out for the full number of recommended minutes, he added.

The district has also consistently lagged behind state averages on the statewide fitness test. And that’s in a state where the averages aren’t all that impressive: In 2012, results from California’s fitness testing showed that only 25 percent of fifth-graders received passing marks in all six fitness areas tested. For seventh-graders, that figure rises to 32 percent, or 37 percent for ninth-graders.

“When we can call fewer than one out of three of our kids physically fit, we know we have a tremendous public health challenge on our hands,” Tom Torlakson, California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in a statement announcing the results last fall.

With this week’s vote to restore credentialed P.E. instructors, the district hopes to improve those dismal trends. Finding the funding to do so remains the challenge. After California’s AB 1811 passed in 2006, districts in the state became eligible for grant funds to hire credentialed physical education teachers. At the program’s height, the LAUSD funded 31 teachers through the Physical Education Teacher Incentive Program (PETIP). But since the state gave districts flexibility on how it could use the grants, the cash-strapped LAUSD sucked the money into its general fund last year to pay for basic expenses.

While state figures show that LAUSD was allocated more than $1.6 million in PETIP funds for 2012-2013, the district has taken advantage of the flexibility in use and that money is already being spent elsewhere. Returning the money to P.E. positions would mean taking money away from other programs or positions. It’s that zero-sum conundrum that led visibly frustrated Board of Education member Tamar Galatzan to vote against this week’s resolution.

“Before I vote for something, I just need to know where the money is coming from,” she said. “And unfortunately no one can answer that.”

Board member Steve Zimmer, who co-authored the resolution to bring back the P.E. positions, personally vowed to go out and find sponsors to fund the program.

“I am upset that it’s been so hard to get people interested in working on the sponsorship of this,” said Zimmer. “To me, this is readymade for sponsorship.”

But as Fenwick, the district’s physical education advisor, pointed out, sponsorship has its own perils.

“The problem with sponsoring teaching positions like this is you never know the following year whether you’re going to get that money,” he said.

The prospect of the nation’s second largest school system turning to private foundations or companies to pay for less than two dozen P.E. positions may well sound discouraging, particularly given the essential role played by exercise in preventing disease and maintaining health.

On a more immediate level, however, the board’s decision this week does resuscitate a gutted program, and it will, for now at least, put more qualified P.E. teachers in kids’ classrooms. But the question of how they’ll be paid for remains.

“This is a pretty big deal, because the board voted to say that physical education is important,” Fenwick said. “That sends a message to the superintendent – who was basically saying it wasn’t as important – that it is important and you need to do this.”

Image by Navy Hale Keiki School via Flickr


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