Minding the body

Transforming P.E. and maybe test scores too

A student at Falcon Bluffs Middle School in Jefferson County picks up his pedometer before P.E. class.

A seventh-grade girl in black skinny jeans and a black cardigan casually strolled into the gymnasium before fifth period at Falcon Bluffs Middle School in Littleton. She crossed toward a box of bright orange pedometers sitting on the floor, stooped to pick one up and immediately broke into a run as she headed to the locker room to change. She wasn’t late for class.

Neither were the boys who burst through the gym doors and sprinted to the pedometer box or the girls who speed-walked to the locker room.

Strange as it sounds, the students were all rushing to rack up Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity minutes in P.E. class. Commonly known as MVPA, the student keep track of their minutes using the pedometers, which they clip to the waistband of their green gym shorts.

In addition to arriving early for P.E at Falcon Bluffs, students hopped up and down or skipped in circles while waiting for class to begin. They jogged in place while standing in line to bat during the day’s indoor baseball game. Some kept bouncing at the end of class as they waited in line to insert their pedometers into docking stations that would record their MVPA numbers in a computer database.

A set of 15 pedometers costs $400.
Students use these pedometers to track their “Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity” in P.E. class. A set of 15 pedometers costs $400.

The students’ motivation to move stems from the school’s new approach to physical activity, both during P.E. and a before-school fitness program. It’s no longer just a means of achieving physical fitness, but also mental fitness, with the pedometers serving as a source of instant feedback and a tool for long-term tracking. The new approach, which began at Falcon Bluffs and four other Jeffco schools last year, is based on the work of Harvard psychiatry professor John Ratey, who wrote, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”

While many educators instinctively sense that exercise helps kids in the classroom, the reasons are often articulated with vague explanations like “it burns off energy” or “it gets the wiggles out.” Ratey details the science behind the intuition, describing how exercise affects neurotransmitters and brain infrastructure to facilitate learning.

“He calls exercise ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain,’” said Emily O’Winter, Jeffco’s healthy schools coordinator. “It is so compelling. It’s so motivating to exercise for your brain.”

In the education realm, there may be no better example of the brain-fitness connection than Naperville School District 203, a high-achieving district near Chicago that pioneered many of the physical education practices that Ratey recommends. In “Spark,” Ratey lauds the district’s student body as “perhaps the fittest in the nation” and talks about their world-class performance on the international TIMSS test.

The idea of leveraging exercise for academic success obviously intrigues principals and teachers, but it also seems to resonate with students. During a recent P.E. class, seventh-grader Brody Hall jogged in place as he explained to a visitor why he comes to the before-school “Spark” most days. “I wanted to come … in the morning and get my brain going for the day so I’d be able to learn better.”

A primer on MVPA
  • A person’s heart rate should be 50-70 percent of his maximum heart rate when doing moderate physical activity and 70-85 percent of his maximum when doing vigorous physical activity. To estimate a person’s maximum heart rate, subtract his age from 220.
  • Examples of moderate physical activity include brisk walking, leisurely biking, yoga and badminton.
  • Examples of vigorous physical activity includes jogging, basketball, soccer and hockey.
  • For more information, go to Measuring Physical Activity Intensity on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site.

His first class is language arts and he said his mind wanders less when he attends Spark first.

“I think it’s just like I’m more focused and ready to learn and more awake.”

This spring, the district plans to expand its Spark-inspired approach to seven additional schools with the help of a $200,000 “Thriving Schools” grant from Kaiser Permanente. Next fall, the funds will allow up to 15 additional schools to come on board.

While Jeffco is hardly the only Colorado district attempting to increase students’ physical activity, its approach appears unique. The use of pedometers and the careful tracking of MVPA is uncommon, said Jamie Hurley, a professional development consultant for RMC Health who has worked with many districts on physical activity initiatives. More often, he said, schools try to increase opportunities for physical activity throughout the school day, perhaps in the form of added recess or classroom “brain breaks.”

The hallmarks of Spark

Jeffco’s brand of Spark, which is not to be confused with two unrelated programs –the SPARK physical activity curriculum and SPARK After-School Academy—aims to provide daily or near-daily chances for physical activity at school with the goal of measuring and boosting students’ MVPA. Ideally, Spark takes place just before core academic classes though scheduling logistics don’t always allow that.

Two students in Allyn Atadero's P.E. class plug their pedometers into docking stations after class so their MVPA numbers will be recorded.
Two students in Allyn Atadero’s P.E. class plug their pedometers into docking stations after class so their MVPA numbers will be recorded.

Ryan West, the principal at Falcon Bluffs, launched the school’s first iteration of Spark in the fall of 2012 after a central administrator gave him and four other principals a copy of Ratey’s book.

“I had no idea that this was out there,” said West. “I knew the anecdotal stuff about the importance of athletics, but I didn’t have the research.”

West, with the help of counselor Rob Longbrake, soon launched a Spark elective class, selecting 16 students, mostly boys, who were reading below grade level. Each day, Longbrake led the students in a physical activity session in the former staff lounge, which had been equipped with stationary bikes, workout videos and circuit training equipment. The students tracked their MVPA using heart rate monitors strapped around their chests. Right after Spark, the students went to their remedial reading class.

Longbrake quickly discovered the kids didn’t enjoy spinning and weren’t as driven as he’d expected.

“So I finally just said, ‘OK guys, what do you want to do to get moving here?’”  he said. “So we ended up…doing anything we could to move. We played a lot of ultimate football outside.”

Meanwhile, the students made huge academic gains in reading.

“Their TCAP scores went through the roof,” said Longbrake. “It was pretty cool.”

West said all the students had scored “unsatisfactory” on the 2012 TCAP reading test. On the 2013 test, all but two scored “proficient” or “partially proficient” and more than half showed higher-than-average growth rates. In some cases, students went from reading at a first- or second-grade level to a fifth-, sixth- or seventh-grade level, he said.

O’Winter said the preliminary findings, which were similar at the other schools, are encouraging but can’t be indisputably attributed to the Spark programs.

“The thing is we’re not a research institute,” she said. “With this data we hope to show success, but we can’t prove anything without a randomized clinical trial.”

Taking it schoolwide

While the first-year data may not rise to the level of a scientific study, Falcon Bluffs administrators found it convincing enough to expand the Spark philosophy to all P.E. classes this year, and launch a 7 a.m. Spark fitness session four mornings a week.

The biggest change, aside from a wider swath of participants, was the switch from heart rate monitors to the more user-friendly pedometers, which use an algorithm based on step counts to calculate MVPA. While the heart monitors are probably a bit more accurate, the straps got sweat soaked after one or two class periods and the associated software didn’t always work, said P.E. teacher Allyn Atadero.

While the pedometers provide instant feedback on exercise intensity, students seem to glean at least as much inspiration from the many lists Atadero posts on the gym bulletin board. First, he created the 10-Minute Club, posting the name of every student who achieved at least that amount of MVPA during his 44-minute class. Initially, his hope was that 70 percent of students would reach that threshold.

Students jog in place while chatting with P.E. teacher Allyn Atadero before class begins.
Students jog in place while chatting with P.E. teacher Allyn Atadero before class begins.

“I thought I was shooting high,” he laughed.

Turns out, he was shooting too low. Pretty soon, Atadero added a 20-Minute Club, a 30-Minute Club, even a 40-Minute Club. He also created a Top 10 Boys list and Top 10 Girls list for every class, a Top 10 All-Time list and class vs. class competitions.

Perhaps most surprising is the 50-Minute Club, which was added a few weeks ago after one boy somehow spent every minute of P.E. plus most of two passing times in the MVPA zone.

“I can’t think of any student I have that has not bought into it, every single kid,” said Atadero.

While there are certainly a share of lean, athletic students who make the high-minute clubs, Atadero said he’s seen major improvements even by students who don’t typically embrace fitness. He described one girl in morning Spark, who started out with only two to three minutes of MVPA during the 40-minute session. Now, just by picking up her walking pace, she routinely breaks 20 minutes.

Atadero also said Spark has changed the way he teaches some of his P.E. units. For example, to incorporate more movement into baseball, he now requires students to sprint across the gym and touch the bleachers after every three outs. He also grades on effort, not athletic ability, awarding the top score of four to every student who achieves at least 10 minutes of MVPA.

“I have that tool now where I can monitor 100 percent of my students,” he said.

Lack of policies, funding

While West, Atadero and others involved in the Spark experiment at Falcon Bluffs are enthusiastic about the program, it’s not without weaknesses. For one, physical education is not required at the middle school level in Jeffco, so about 15 percent of Falcon Bluffs students don’t take it at all.

Those who do, take it daily for one trimester, or about 12 weeks. That means any benefits, whether physical or academic, are temporary, except for the 30-40 students who voluntarily attend before-school Spark.

What about the possibility of offering daily P.E. to students all year?

“I would absolutely love to do that. That would be a dream of mine,” said West, a former high school football coach. “The reality is I have 650 kids in this building and Allyn is my only P.E teacher.”

O’Winter said that problem exists across the district. Still, she believes excitement about Spark is growing and feels it provides a better solution for struggling students than loading them up with extra academics.

“Why isn’t this the most obvious thing?” she said. “This is how our brains are built.”

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

Story time

This Memphis teacher’s favorite student didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught him a powerful lesson.

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner teaches at East High School in Memphis.

When one of Daniel Warner’s favorite students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he could feel the tension in himself rising.

It was August 2017, the first week of classes, and Warner said he knew how important setting a tone was during the first few days of school.

“Didn’t my teacher prep program teach me that I have to set high expectations in that first week or the year is lost?” asked Warner, a U.S. history teacher at East High School in Memphis. “If I don’t set those, we’re done for.”

But before Warner reacted, he said he took a few moments to reflect on what could be going through her head.

Chalkbeat TN Storytelling Event
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner tells his story to a crowded room.

It was the Monday after a violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stories of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick were again dominating the news, as he remained ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Instead of punishing her, Warner said, he refocused on what she might be thinking through as a black American high schooler.

“The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers,” Warner said.

Warner was one of seven educators and students who participated in a February story storytelling night hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The stories told centered around school discipline practices, a topic Chalkbeat recently dove into in this special report.

Video Credit: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange. The Social Exchange is a pay-as-you can PR & content creation firm for nonprofits and responsible, women/minority owned businesses.

Here’s an edited transcript of Warner’s story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s a week into school in early August. And kids are just trickling into my senior homeroom mostly asleep, sitting quietly in their desk as 18-year-olds do at 7:15 in the morning…And then morning announcements come on. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

So I stand up, and I say, “Alright y’all, go ahead and stand up with me.” I see these seniors throwing their bodies out of their seats, trying to stand up while they are still asleep. And almost everyone stands up but one girl doesn’t…  

So, my eyes meet this girls eyes as she stays in her seat during the pledge. And I can feel the tension in me of my authority being challenged in the room. And I wonder if everyone else is looking at me, my other students. So I give her a teacher look meant to communicate, “Are you going to stand up?” And she looks at me from across the room and shakes her head and mouths, “I can’t.”

So this student was one of my best students the year before in honors U.S. History. She engaged deeply with the material and personally. She asked questions of herself, of her country, of democracy, what this whole thing is about. She processed the double consciousness she feels of being both black and American. And she did so while being kind, thoughtful hardworking. The student you think of that makes you want to cry, you love that kid so much. I wonder what’s going on, what is she thinking about…

This is a Monday and the weekend before had been the white supremacists march in Charlottesville… When she told me, that she couldn’t stand, I went and sat in the desk next to her…I asked, “What’s keeping you from standing up?”

She started by saying, “I hate,” and she stopped herself. She took a breath, calmed herself down and said, “I just can’t.” And so we just sat there for a second. I could see as I got closer to her that she was flooded with emotion and feeling something deeply. And so we let the announcements end and I tell her, “When I say the pledge I say it more as a hope and a prayer…that there would be liberty and justice for all.” She said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” like a good U.S. History student, but she said “things don’t’ seem to be headed that way right now…

The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers. She showed me that I was a little too focused on how I was being perceived by other students in the classroom. And that I wasn’t focused enough on her and what she might be processing. As teachers, we have all of this opportunity to escalate conflict, I’ve done it plenty of times. But we also have an opportunity to be gracious to students who are working out who they are in public…

This girl wasn’t being disengaged by saying no to me, she was being especially engaged with who she is… When we talk about restorative justice, the first step we have to take is for us as educators and adults, and it’s doing your own emotional work. And we have to ask ourselves questions about our identities. You can only lead someone somewhere if you’ve gone there yourself…

What is it about us when it sets us off when a kid says no to us? Why are we that insecure? … When we pay attention to ourselves, our emotional status, the hurt we’ve felt, the pain we’ve lived through, that is when we can begin paying attention to how formative schools are. They are spaces where folks are working out their identities in public, and that’s when you feel the most self conscious and vulnerable and in need of grace offered by someone else.

So, I hope as we talk about this, we think of ways where we can make school a space for people to be figuring out who they are and not just punished into compliance. In high poverty schools, you talk about compliance like it’s the ultimate behavior. I hope we can make schools where students can learn what it is to seek justice, even when and especially when, things just don’t seem to be headed that way right now.