San Francisco Kids Don't Get Enough Physical Education

Published on
February 24, 2012

physical education, children's health, Katherine Mieszkowski, reporting on healthResearchers from the University of California, San Francisco have quantified just how little physical education students at public elementary schools in the city get. The researchers studied 20 randomly-selected elementary schools and found that on average fifth graders receive only 114 minutes of p.e. every 10 school days. That's significantly less than the 200 minutes that the state requires. 

I reported on the study, which was released on Thursday, as part of my health reporting fellowship. You can read the piece in The Bay Citizen here.

Notably, the same researchers also studied four middle schools and four high schools in the district, and found that older students received all the p.e. that the California Department of Education requires. 

Why are elementary school students in the district getting short-changed at gym, when their older peers aren't?

"The difference is that there is a block schedule in middle and high school," Dr. Kristine Madsen, an assistant professor at UCSF's Department of Pediatrics, who led the study, told me. "If it programmed into your day, it is much more likely to happen." In elementary schools, the missed gym time was most often dedicated to academic lessons. Bad weather, field trips and assemblies often cut into p.e., too. 

This piece was a pretty straight-forward news story, but from the previous reporting I'd done for my p.e. series I was able to put the study in context. For instance, I knew that the dearth of p.e. in elementary schools is hardly a problem limited to San Francisco schools. It's a statewide issue. 

I'd previously shown that there are vast disparities in the fitness of elementary schoolers in the Bay Area. I'd also looked at the creative ways that school districts, like Redwood City, are struggling to provide physical education to younger kids, as budgets for p.e. teachers have shrunk.