Healthy Schools

A small band of schools believe in daily p.e.

Tucked away in cities like Denver and Loveland or rural communities like Las Animas and Haxtun, you will find schools where students get physical education daily. In a state that doesn’t require p.e. at all and where many students get it just a couple times a week, these schools are anomalies.

There’s Academy 360, a new charter school in Far Northeast Denver, that offers 45 minutes of p.e. a day as part its mission to educate the whole child. There’s B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland, which added 30 minutes of daily p.e. back in 2008 when declining enrollment prompted it to adopt a health and wellness focus. There’s Las Animas Middle School, located in southeast Colorado, which provides 55 minute of p.e. during all four days of its school week in part because most other electives have been cut.

While experts warn that not all daily p.e. is high quality, there is evidence that generally such offerings represent one of the highest-impact changes schools can make to help students move more. A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that instituting daily physical education classes for children boosts moderate to vigorous physical activity by 23 minutes a day, a higher number of minutes that any other policy evaluated.

Despite federal recommendations that children ages 6 to 17 get an hour of physical activity a day, only 49 percent of Colorado children ages 5 to 14 reached that threshold, according to 2011 data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Nationally, the numbers are similar, which is part of the reason the Chicago board of education voted last month to roll out daily p.e. for all students over the next three years. Although the Illinois School Code requires daily p.e., Chicago Public Schools has had a waiver exempting it from the requirement.

While the health advantages of physical education, and physical activity in general, are widely accepted, many educators say its purpose in schools goes much deeper. Citing brain research by John Ratey and John Medina, they say daily physical activity is a way to optimize student achievement.

“It’s really in the service of learning,” said Sally Sorte, principal of Academy 360, which also provides 15 minutes of morning movement and a 15-minute recess. “You see the benefits back in the classroom. Students are more calm. Their attention is better.”

Kristin Quere, the p.e. teacher at B.F. Kitchen, said, “If we want to provide our kids the optimal learning environment, and movement is a way to do that…we’re kind of missing the boat if we’re not providing that.”

At the Girls Athletic Leadership School, a charter middle school in central Denver, the dress code includes sneakers, exercise pants and t-shirts because movement is woven throughout the school day. Four mornings a week, the girls take 40-minute movement classes with modules ranging from circuit training to yoga.

“If you ask where the vision is — yeah, we’re working on health and wellness, but all that is for the outcome that people feel truly comfortable as physical beings, ” said the school’s founder Liz Wolfson. “I know I can teach them to love themselves at that point. If they love themselves anything’s possible: good relationships, passion in learning and career choices.”

How many schools do it?

There’s no data that shows how many Colorado schools offer daily physical education, but most experts say the answer is not many. If anything, it appears to be more common in tiny rural districts where small student populations make it possible for one p.e. teacher to receive every class in the gymnasium each day.

Physical activity minutes related to policy changes

  • Requiring daily P.E.: 23 minutes
  • Providing classroom physical activity breaks: 19 minutes
  • Increasing walking or bicycling to school: 16 minutes
  • Renovating parks to include more equipment and opportunities for activity: 12 minutes
  • Increasing after-school physical activity programs: 10 minutes
  • Standardizing P.E. curricula to increase active time and decrease inactive time: 6 minutes more than traditional P.E.
  • Modifying school playgrounds: 6 minutes
  • Modifying recess to provide more play equipment that encourages physical activity: 5 minutes more than traditional recess
  • Increasing park access: 1 minute

In some cases, few other “specials” or elective classes are available because of budget cuts or the scarcity of specialty teachers. In Las Animas, where kindergarteners through ninth-graders get between 25 and 55 minutes of daily p.e., the music program is gone, as are health classes, wood shop and other electives.

“We’ve hung on to two electives essentially,” said Carl Lindauer, the district’s athletic director and the p.e. teacher for grades 7-12. “When it boils right down to it…it’s easier to get p.e. teachers than music teachers in rural Colorado.”

Sue Brittenham, who manages a Colorado Health Foundation grant to improve physical education in 43 rural districts in the state, found that only about 11 elementary schools in the group offer daily p.e. for all grades, though several have school only four days a week. About two dozen middle and high schools in the group also offer daily p.e., but very few require it in more than one or two grades.

Nationally, the number of schools that offer daily p.e. appears similarly low. A 2006 study in the Journal of School Health found that 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools and 2 percent of high schools had daily p.e.

Aside from a lack of facility space or funding, Brittenham said another barrier to more p.e. is the push to raise student achievement.

“They think if kids are in their classrooms more their scores are going to go up and it’s just the opposite,” she said.

Like many advocates for school-based physical activity, Sorte doesn’t believe p.e. and traditional classroom instruction are competing interests.

“[I’m] not seeing it as a tradeoff but really seeing physical education as a way to continue academic growth.”

The logistics of daily p.e

While some rural schools have offered daily p.e. for years, those that have added it more recently say it may take scheduling or funding tweaks, but it’s doable.

“You’ve got to have administrative support…They have to be willing to change the schedule. They have to be willing to say, ‘Yeah, we need this, so we need those extra funds,’” said Kristin Quere. “The entire school has to be bought into why it is important for these kids.”

Quere, who used to rotate between two schools before B.F. Kitchen added daily p.e., said part of her salary is now paid using Title 1 funds. In addition, to ensure all kids get p.e. on Wednesday, the district’s early release day, she takes two classes at a time with the help of a paraprofessional.

Students at GALS in Denver participate in a 40-minute yoga class.
Students at GALS in Denver participate in a 40-minute yoga class.

At some schools, particularly mission-based charter schools, p.e. is a foundational part of the program and administrators never imagined opening their schools without it. That’s the case at Academy 360 and GALS.

Not that it’s always easy. Academy 360 is currently leasing space in a church and has no gymnasium. The p.e. teacher there, who pairs the Spark curriculum with state p.e. standards, either runs the classes in an empty classroom or takes the children outside.

The school also doesn’t offer stand-alone art or music classes. Instead, teachers try to incorporate those subjects into classroom projects, or students have the option to join a low-cost after-school drum circle run by a local non-profit.

Brittenham said the wide disparity in how much physical education schools offer—from daily classes to one per week, can make it difficult for some p.e. teachers to cover the state’s physical education standards and the associated benchmarks.

According to data she’s collected on the 43 districts involved in her grant, elementary schools offer a range from 53 to 124 minutes of p.e. per week, while middle schools offer 82 to 194 minutes, and high schools offer between 81 and 205 minutes.

“How effective can I be compared to a teacher who sees their kids twice as much as I do?” she said.

All daily p.e. not created equal

Experts caution that daily p.e. doesn’t automatically mean high-quality programming that builds students’ skills and self-esteem using an evidence-based curriculum.

“Sometimes, it’s a cover-up for sports practice,” said Elaine Belansky, associate director of the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center at the University of Colorado.

In cases where p.e. is not well-executed and caters to only a select group of student athletes, it can have the unintended effect of making exercise a turn-off for some students, she said. If that happens on a daily basis, it can actually be more harmful than once- or twice-a-week p.e.

Daily p.e. can also be a disaster if it’s not properly staffed. Brittenham told of a Texas p.e. teacher who was responsible for 100 students during every class because her district had implemented daily p.e. without adding any new teachers.

“They said they really felt like it was glorified recess,” she said.

At Las Animas Middle, which has a p.e. class for kids in school sports and another for those not in sports, Lindhauer said the district is proud to offer the classes daily. He said while urban areas offer lots of community-based options for youth sports and fitness, Las Animas is “sort of like an island.”

“If we don’t provide it through the schools, they don’t get it,” he said.

How are you feeling?

With plan to focus on teen health, Adams 12 school district opens new clinic

PHOTO: Jasleen_kaur/Creative Commons

The Adams 12 school district, Colorado’s sixth-largest, will open its first school-based health clinic this fall at Thornton High School.

The new clinic will offer routine physicals, sick care and mental health counseling to the 1,675 students at Thornton High as well as another 1,000 students who take classes at the district’s career and technical education center on the same campus.

By providing a convenient source of health care, particularly for low-income students, advocates say school-based health centers help prevent and address health problems that can impede learning.

Statewide, the number of school-based health centers has grown over the last decade — from 40 in 2007 to 59 this fall.

Despite the overall upward trend, not all school-based health centers survive. For example, the clinic at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, a high poverty school in the Jeffco district, closed its doors last spring.

A district official there said the nonprofit organization providing the health services, which were available to Jefferson students and other local residents, decided to depart because district security logistics made it difficult to keep the clinic open during evening and weekend hours.

In Adams 12, planning for the new clinic began in 2015. A district committee chose Thornton High to house the health center because of the high level of poverty in that area and because the campus, which also houses the Bollman Technical Education Center, serves the largest number of high school students in the district.

District spokesman Kevin Denke said the decision to focus on a teenage population stems from the fact that adolescents tend to see doctors less often than younger students and may be starting to engage in risky behaviors, such as sexual activity, alcohol use or drug use.

The neighboring Boulder Valley school district also has a school-based health clinic in the works, though it’s not expected to open until the fall of 2019. That clinic, the district’s first, will be located at the Arapahoe Campus, which houses Arapahoe Ridge High School and the district’s career and technical education center.

District officials said the clinic was originally slated to open earlier, but the launch was pushed back to align with a planned remodel of the career and technical education space.

In the meantime, the district will expand a dental care program that’s gradually ramped up at the Arapahoe Campus. Begun four years ago as a basic screening program that referred kids with cavities and other problems to area dentists, the program last year provided cleanings, fluoride treatments and sealants to 42 students at Arapahoe Ridge and two other district high schools.

This year, the program will offer the same services, plus treatment for minor cavities, to students from all district high schools. The goal is to serve 250 students by the end of the year.

Fighting hunger

No more cheese sandwiches: Denver restores hot lunches for students in debt

Students at Denver's Fairmont ECE-8 have a choice of fruits and vegetables for lunch. (Denver Post file photo)

Denver students will start the year off with lunch debts paid off and a new promise that falling behind on lunch payments will not mean a cold “alternative” meal.

The district announced the change this week.

“We will feed every kid, every day,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg wrote. “We know hungry kids aren’t the best learners.”

In some districts, including DPS, students who fall behind on lunch payments may be given alternative meals such as a cheese sandwich, or graham crackers and milk.

Boasberg said all kids will get regular hot-lunch options while payment issues are resolved and the district works on a long-term strategy.

In the last school year, Denver students had accumulated a balance of more than $13,000. The debt would be higher if some schools had not set aside money to help students.

According to the district, schools paid for more than 37,700 meals during the 2016-17 year.

The district said that donations raised by students through a nonprofit called KidsGiving365, and by Shift Workspaces, founded by Grant Barnhill, a parent of an incoming DPS student, will cover all the outstanding lunch debt of students in the district.

In DPS, all students receive free breakfast. Students who qualify for free lunch based on family income do not make payments and do not accrue debt.

For 2017-18, a family of four must earn less than $31,980 to qualify for free lunch, or less than $45,510 to qualify for a reduced price lunch.

The announcement from DPS reminds families that the application for free or discounted lunch can be submitted throughout the year, and that students are eligible regardless of immigration status.