Health and Happiness

Reading, writing and aerobics: How a popular Indy school uses movement to help kids learn

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19 has a focus on fitness.

The ceiling of Principal Aleicha Ostler’s office in School 19 often vibrates, as small feet clamor and stomp above her head.

Ostler’s office isn’t below the gym or a busy hallway, but the classroom above her is seldom quiet. That’s because nearly every class at School 19 has physical activity built into the day, with students walking, dancing and stomping as they study English, math and history.

An elementary and middle school southeast of downtown, School 19 — known in Indianapolis as the SUPER school — is among the most popular magnet schools in the city. Then again, it’s a rare breed: a magnet program focused on health and physical activity at a time when some schools prohibit students from moving during class.

“Here it’s encouraged,” Ostler said. “When they are sitting on a yoga ball, they can rock, they can bounce. They are not told to stop.”

In addition to yoga balls in every classroom, the school has standing desks and exercise equipment students can use during class — such as pedals under desks, stools that spin and child-size ellipticals.

Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19.
PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19.

On a Monday afternoon, the students in one classroom chanted and stomped their feet to music as they counted by seven. Down the hall, seventh graders walked to each side of their social studies class for a debate about whether it’s a “big deal” when football players don’t stand for the national anthem.

In a kindergarten classroom, the teacher led his students in physical movements as they spelled out words, touching his hands to his head, waist and feet for each letter.

“They are just very simple strategies,” said Ostler, who has been principal of School 19 for eight years.

It’s an approach that has proven popular with families. The magnet program is open to children from across the district, and it commonly attracts more students than it can serve — particularly for middle school, which sometimes has more than 100 students on the waitlist, Ostler said.

Yet the little known program ignited controversy last month, when the IPS administration revealed a proposal to convert School 43 to a SUPER school without consulting community leaders. After receiving a rebuke from board member Kelly Bentley, the district retracted the plan. The future of School 43 is still undecided, however, and the school could still convert to a magnet with a health and physical activity focus.

If that happens, School 43’s leaders will be able to use the lessons that School 19 learned as it ramped up its fitness focus. The school added fitness courses on a trial basis after a district official suggested that strategy for combatting obesity, and the pilot was so successful that it expanded to the whole school about five years ago.

In addition to adding movement throughout the day, the school added two extra physical education teachers. Just as academic teachers integrate movement into their classes, physical education teachers also work with students on academic skills. For example, an action-based learning class, teacher Kim Ward, will have students bounce on the trampoline while they practice reading words by sight, she said.

Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19.
PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19.

The school has cooking classes to help students learn to eat healthfully and the school doesn’t allow pizza parties or sweet snacks like birthday cupcakes. Instead, students are encouraged to bring in treats like fruit.

When students are more physically active, research suggests they are better at complex cognition — such as problem solving and remembering what they learn — and do better in school, said Amanda Szabo-Reed, a researcher at the University of Kansas Medical Center who recently summarized existing studies on activity and learning. There’s also evidence that students are better at focusing on tasks after moving, she said.

But research is not clear on whether there are benefits to combining movement and school work — something that Ostler and others at the school said is crucial to the school’s vision.

“There isn’t definitive research out there to say ‘it’s better to do your times tables while doing jumping jacks than to just do jumping jacks,’ ” Szabo-Reed said.

The practical benefits to combining movement and academics are real: Students at School 19 spend a lot more time being physically active than students at schools where the only opportunity for exercise is during a brief recess or gym class.

Comparing test scores over time doesn’t answer the question of whether the fitness program is boosting academic performance, Ostler said, because the student population has changed so much since School 19 became a magnet school.

But the school’s own measurements of students’ fitness have found gains every year, according to Ostler. And teachers say they see another benefit to moving more in class: Students are happier and more engaged during the day.

Megan Burt, an interventionist at School 19, was a first-grade teacher when the magnet program started. She said that students used to get bored in class, resting their heads on their hands. Now, they are more excited about coming to school and rarely seem disinterested.

“It’s hard to teach a group of kids who are just sitting there with their heads on their hands, bored, because then you start to get bored,” she said. “It’s exciting to see kids so excited about school.”

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those parameters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.