U.S. schools are rethinking importance of phys ed | NevadaAppeal.com

U.S. schools are rethinking importance of phys ed

Lenny Bernstein
The Washington Post
First lady Michelle Obama points out some student athletes as she announces a campaign to combat the rapidly growing problem of childhood obesity, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2010, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
AP | AP

Two months back, tiny Lincoln University attracted worldwide media attention when it threatened to withhold diplomas from overweight students unless they took a special fitness class.

Under its 2005 policy, which the Philadelphia area school rescinded in December after weeks of criticism from activists and the media, students with body mass indexes (BMI) over 30 were required to take a one-credit class called “Fitness for Life” in order to graduate from the historically black college. A person with a BMI of 30 is considered obese under health guidelines.

The controversy made me curious about the role our schools are playing in our children’s fitness and whether they are having any impact in the so far losing effort against the obesity epidemic.

In the early 1970s, phys ed was a requirement: usually three periods a week through junior year. Team sports reigned, and those who couldn’t keep up were told to stay out of the way.

It wasn’t fun, and it usually didn’t involve much exercise.

Now it’s different – at least in theory and at least in some schools. With the adoption of new standards in the early 1990s, physical education was to be reoriented toward teaching kids the skills needed to stay fit for a lifetime.

Across the country, some schools have embraced the idea. Glenelg High in Howard County, Md., for example, has practically turned its gym into a fitness club. “Lifetime Fitness” is now the required course at the school, where students have access to spin bikes, elliptical machines, balance balls, step aerobics, free weights and other equipment. They use heart-rate monitors and pedometers and develop individual exercise plans.

Instead of massive scrums on the football field, during any gym period, some students may play Ultimate Frisbee while others walk the track, according to Jacqueline French, facilitator of physical education for Howard County public schools.

“We’ve reached the kids who, typically, their parents hated P.E. (because) they weren’t very successful,” says Ginger Kincaid, a physical education teacher who runs the program. “Those are the kids who are getting something out of it.”

Loudoun County, Va., won a $1.4 million grant in July to undertake a similar conversion of its schools over the next three years, says Sheila Jones, the school system’s supervisor of health and physical education.

So everything is on track, right? Not really. It’s too soon for any good research to determine whether the new orientation has had an impact.

Many schools, lacking the money and expertise to retool, have no such equipment. Others have responded to No Child Left Behind’s mandate to raise student test scores by stealing time from P.E.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) recommends that schools provide at least 150 minutes of exercise per five-day school week at the elementary school level and 225 minutes a week for middle and high school students. But in fact, public elementary schools provide just 85 minutes a week for first-graders and 98 minutes a week for sixth-graders, according to a 2005 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“With No Child Left Behind, one of the things that was left behind was physical education,” says Stephen Jeffries, NASPE’s president and a professor of physical education at Central Washington University.

When the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University evaluated school P.E. policies in Connecticut, most talked a good game but didn’t accomplish much, says Marlene Schwartz, the center’s deputy director.

And the obesity epidemic continues unabated.

Which brings us back to Lincoln University.

Recognizing the treacherous waters it was stepping into, the school in 2005 adopted a fitness-for-life curriculum, began keeping track of its students’ BMIs and resolved that some would have to take the fitness class to earn their diplomas.

The first class to approach graduation under the new plan was reminded of the requirement in the fall, and the uproar ensued. The controversy generated coverage as far away as Russia and Australia.

Under Lincoln’s new plan, faculty still will keep track of students’ BMIs but will only be “advising, counseling and recommending” that some enroll in the fitness class.

The school plans to revisit the issue after it has more data on students’ decisions.