Get moving

All work and no play: Colorado kids losing out on P.E., report finds

Many Colorado educators say funding constraints and the relentless pressure to focus on academics means physical education gets short shrift in schools.

As a result, few kids get the minimum amount of physical education recommended by experts. The problem is compounded by the fact that Colorado is one of the few states that doesn’t require schools to provide physical education classes.

These are among the findings of new report published by PE For All Colorado, a statewide coalition of health and advocacy groups.

Colorado collects no detailed statewide data on the quantity or quality of physical education offered, so getting a clear picture is impossible. However, the report’s authors point to multiple pieces of evidence that kids aren’t getting enough P.E., including the coalition’s research, state health survey data and national statistics showing around half of schools cut P.E. after the passage of the No Child Left Behind law in 2001.

The report argues that the dearth of P.E. is particularly detrimental for low-income students, who are more likely to be overweight and obese, and less likely to get adequate exercise throughout the day.

Drawing on interviews with teachers, administrators and school board members, the report found that many respondents believed personally in the importance of physical education, but said that school districts needed more evidence before making it a top priority.

One respondent said, “If you could show that [requiring a minimum number of P.E. hours] will increase academic achievement, then we would be remiss in not looking at it. To just do it ‘because it’s good for kids’, then no…”

The report highlights research that shows a correlation between physical fitness and better performance on standardized tests. It also cites research showing physical activity improves students’ focus and concentration and reduces behavior problems among young children.

A 2011 state law requires  schools to provide elementary students an average of 30 minutes a day of physical activity — either physical education, recess, brain breaks or something else.

But the law has no teeth and is not enforced. About 15 percent of school districts didn’t meet the requirements of the law, according to 2014-15 data from the state education department.

Only 13 percent of school districts reported having policies requiring or encouraging a certain amount of P.E. time, according to a 2014 health department study of 41 Colorado districts.

The report includes a number of recommendations. Among them:

  • Elementary students should get 30 minutes a day and secondary students should get 45 minutes a day of physical education.
  • Recess and physical activity breaks should not be substituted for P.E.
  • Students should not be withheld from P.E. as a punishment.
  • Students should not be removed from P.E. for academic reasons, such as special education or English language acquisition.
  • The state should adequately fund school districts so quality P.E. programs are attainable in all districts.
  • Policy-makers should offer incentives to schools that meet or exceed Colorado’s physical education standards.

Clarification: A previous version of this story said that Colorado is one of the few states that doesn’t require physical education in schools. While it’s true that Colorado is one of the few states that doesn’t require schools to provide physical education classes, the state does require districts to adopt standards, curriculum and assessment in all areas where the state has standards, including physical education. 

catching some zzzzs

One Colorado district moving toward later high school start times — maybe — while another shelves the idea

PHOTO: Chellseyy, Creative Commons

Of the two large Colorado school districts that were actively exploring later high school start times for the 2017-18 school year, one is moving ahead and one has dropped the idea for now.

The 55,000-student Cherry Creek district — the state’s fourth largest — continues to consider proposed start- and end-time changes at all school levels. While the district is still collecting community feedback, the current proposal would set elementary school start times at 7:55 a.m., middle school start times at 8:50 a.m. and high school start times at 8:15 a.m.

Currently, Cherry Creek elementary schools start about 9 a.m., middle schools start about 8 a.m. and high schools start about 7 am. A recommendation will go before the Cherry Creek school board this spring.

Meanwhile, the 31,000-student Boulder Valley school district won’t change school start times next year because of the complexity of managing school bus schedules and the prospect of higher transportation costs, district spokesman Briggs Gamblin wrote via email.

Changes are still possible for the 2018-19 school year if the district can find a way to keep transportation costs at their current levels, he wrote.

The push for later high school start times has gained steam nationally with increasing evidence that when school schedules match with teen sleep rhythms, students are healthier, more focused, attend school more regularly and do better academically. In the last two years, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come out in favor of start times of 8:30 a.m. or after.

In districts that have considered changing high school start times or actually changed them, the logistics of bus schedules and after-school sports are typically the biggest hurdles.

In Colorado, some smaller districts, including the Montezuma-Cortez district in southwest Colorado and the Harrison district in Colorado Springs, have pushed start times to 8:30 a.m. or after for some or all secondary schools.

But large districts have been slower to join the club. Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, briefly explored later start times for some high schools a couple years ago, but the effort did not lead to any changes.

In the Boulder Valley district, a task force spent the 2015-16 school year researching later high school start times, with one of the group’s leaders saying last August she hoped the district could move forward with changes in 2017-18.

In Cherry Creek, where changes to school start and end times have also been under consideration over the last year, a November survey on the topic drew 25,000 responses.

Seventy-three percent of respondents said they wanted high school start times to align more closely to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation. When respondents were asked to pick between six high school schedule scenarios, the 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. scenario was most popular — garnering more than 7,000 votes.

No thanks

Diet Nope: Colorado’s large districts still keeping diet soda out of high schools

After a state rule change last fall that allowed Colorado high schools to sell diet soda after a seven-year ban, many of the state’s big school districts have decided to stay soda-free.

Officials in six of Colorado’s 10 largest districts — Denver, Douglas County, Cherry Creek, Boulder Valley, Poudre and Colorado Springs 11 — say there are no plans to allow diet soda sales.

In some cases, such as Boulder, the district’s existing wellness policy already bans the soft drinks. In others, such as Poudre, the superintendent’s cabinet made the decision in the fall. In Denver, the district’s Health Advisory Council has recommended a continued prohibition of diet soda, but the school board hasn’t voted on the recommendation yet.

“We really commend the districts that are strengthening their own policies to continue to disallow diet soda,” said Sarah Kurz, vice president of policy and communications for the advocacy group LiveWell Colorado.

Three of the 10 largest districts — Aurora, Jeffco and Adams 12 — haven’t decided yet whether to bring back diet soda. Adams 12 officials say they’re gathering feedback from the district’s health advisory committee, 42 school wellness committees and all building principals. When that process is complete, any proposed changes will go through a policy-making process that ends with a recommendation to the superintendent.

Jeffco administrators say they’ll also collect data and public input before deciding whether to update the district’s wellness policy to ban diet soda. Aurora officials said there’s no timeline for a decision.

The St. Vrain district was the only one that declined to provide information about its diet soda plans.

“At this time, St. Vrain Valley Schools has no comment regarding this topic,” spokesman Matthew Wiggins wrote via email.

The diet soda issue popped up last summer shortly after new federal rules came out governing certain types of school food. Under those rules, diet soda can be sold to high-schoolers from vending machines and school stores. Colorado’s stricter rules — in place since 2009 — ban all types of soda in schools.

But officials at the state education department who brought the proposed rule change to the State Board of Education said the change would better align state and federal rules and reduce schools’ regulatory burden. Regular soda is still banned in schools because it exceeds maximum calorie limits under both sets of rules.

In August, and again in September, the State Board of Education voted 4-3 along party lines to change Colorado’s “Healthy Beverage Policy” and allow diet soda in high schools. Republican members in favor of the rule change said the seven-year ban hadn’t cut obesity and that it’s the job of parents not schools to ensure kids make healthy choices.

A coalition of health groups, including LiveWell Colorado, lamented the decision, arguing that diet soda has no nutritional value, harms teeth and diverts students from drinking healthier beverages like water.

Kurz said with the recent change in the state board’s composition — Democrats now hold a majority — it’s possible a vote now would go in favor of a diet soda ban. Still, with lots of big education issues looming, she doesn’t expect the board to take up the issue again.