Own it

PE that’s more like a health club and less like….well, PE

Fairview high school students work out on spin bikes as part of the school's "PE by Choice" class.

At Boulder’s Fairview High School, gym class feels a lot like a trip to the rec center.

On a recent Wednesday morning, as second hour physical education class began, some students snapped up colorful pinnies so they could join the indoor soccer game. Others hustled downstairs to the school’s weight room or to a converted racquetball court filled with spin bikes. Still others filed into the wrestling room where Zumba lessons were about to begin.

Students were free to choose where and how they would complete the day’s work-out. The class, called “PE by Choice,” represents Fairview’s attempt to remake its physical education program around fitness, personal effort and the idea that exercise readies the brain for learning. At the same time, it’s one example of how the state’s high school physical education standards, which emphasize lifelong fitness and individual goal-setting, translate into daily practice.

Aside from one dance-focused PE offering at Fairview, gone are the days where all students focused on one sport whether they loved it or hated it, excelled or struggled. The new approach, which requires fitness testing three times a semester and the use of heart rate monitors up to four days a week, still includes team sports but to a lesser degree.

In any given week, there is a choice of up to 10 different activities, ranging from sand volleyball to yoga. Despite the raft of options, some students were reluctant about the new version of PE program at first, said Rob Vandepol, a PE and health teacher who helped spearhead the effort.

Zumba was one of the choices during a recent PE class at Fairview High School.
Zumba was one of the choices during a recent PE class at Fairview High School.

“We had a bunch of kids who were like, ‘No, it’s going be too hard,'” he said. “They [were] just not really understanding what the program is about. It’s about individual improvement and doing things that you enjoy.”

Ninth-grader Odali Arvalo, one of the few girls who chose soccer during the recent second period class, said she likes the variety.

“Sometimes you do get bored of always having to do the same thing…Not every sport suits you. So you need to find something that does. I think it’s better instead of everybody choosing for you.”

Daily PE activity choices at Fairview High
  • Ball sport: tennis, volleyball, basketball, soccer, floor hockey, pickle ball, ultimate Frisbee, handball or dodge ball
  • Fitness class: Yoga, dance, pilates, interval training or jogging
  • Cardio room: Spin bikes, tread mill and elliptical machine
  • Weight room

For the PE staff, the new model entails some logistical challenges–at times requiring three teachers to supervise up to 120 students in four locations. During the recent second period PE class, Vandepol split his time between the soccer game and the cardio room, walking briskly down the hall from one to the other every five or 10 minutes. The other two teachers manned the weight room and wrestling room.

“We have supervision issues,” he admitted, describing how he and other teachers sometimes scramble to keep an eye on everybody.

“At some point, you have to decide what is really good for kids,” he said. “I don’t want anything bad to happen, but I guess what I’m saying is, this is good for kids.”

Inspiration in Illinois

Fairview’s new PE program was inspired by a similar effort launched a decade ago at Naperville Central High School in Illinois. That school, which VanDePol and other Fairview staff visited in 2012, was featured in the influential book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” by Harvard psychiatry professor John Ratey.

The details of the two programs vary somewhat, but both put a premium on student choice, continuous fitness assessment and effort-based grading. At Fairview, students are assigned a fitness level ranging from one to four at the beginning of the semester based on scores from standard tests of cardio, endurance, strength and flexibility.

Components of “PE by Choice” grade
  • 40 percent -At least 25 minutes of activity in the heart rate “zone,” at least 140 beats per minute
  • 25 percent -Improved fitness score after mid-semester and end-of-semester fitness testing
  • 25 percent -Participation, includes dressing for class and being involved
  • 10 percent-Written knowledge test

Students in Group 1 — anywhere from 17-33 percent of students after the first round of testing — are the fittest students, required to wear a heart rate monitor just once a week. Group 2 students wear the monitors twice a week, Group 3 students wear them three times a week and Group 4 students wear them on all four weekly PE days.

On the days students wear the monitors, the goal is get at least 25 minutes in “the zone,” which is a heart rate of at least 140 beats per minute. Achieving that goal on the number of days required by their fitness level accounts for 40 percent of students’ grades. If students fall short of the goal, they don’t get full credit.

For Kaelec Signorelli, a football player who’d landed in Group 4, the format seemed to provide a refreshing sense of autonomy.

“You actually get to decide who you want to be,” he said. “Are you going to be the big slacker who…doesn’t get your heart rate up? Or you can be the athletic person who tries to actually do this stuff.”

Broadening access

One hoped-for benefit of Fairview’s new approach to PE is that it will engage a wider swath of students, not just those who can score goals or slam dunk. As Vandepol watched the fast-paced indoor soccer game, he noted that not everyone finds ball sports a good fit.

Fairview PE teacher Rob VanDePol outlines the rules before a recent soccer game during PE.
Fairview PE teacher Rob VanDePol outlines the rules before a recent soccer game during PE.

“Most of the kids in the cardio room, they would be the typical group that would suck together and try not to get hit by the ball in here…so we’re trying to do a big social change.”

That’s not to say that he doesn’t want students to try new activities. In fact, PE by Choice encourages cross-training by awarding extra points if students try more than one activity category a week. In part, it’s because different activities promote different athletic skills, but building up a repertoire that lends itself to lifelong activity is also part of the equation.

As Vandepol pitched students on the long list of activities available as he wrapped up his recent class, he touched on the obstacles that plague many adults when it comes to exercise.

“We want you to get a jog on because sometime later in life you might not be able to get to the weight room and get to the gym and play with all your buddies… but you might be able to get home from work at 6 o’clock at night and just go for a jog and you’ll feel better.”

It’s a theme contained in the high school section of state’s physical education standards, adopted in 2009.

“Overall, our PE program is going toward lifetime physical activities,” said Sue Brittenham, a physical education consultant for the Colorado Department of Education. “It really tends to gravitate away from the team sports.”

She added, “It’s kind of hard to get a group of adults together to play flag football.”

Time and money

While PE by Choice seems to be catching on at Fairview, don’t expect to see it widely copied across Colorado just yet. Even Vandepol, an ardent proponent, knows it’s a hard sell.

“My hope is that it eventually will [spread]…but I know that change takes a really long time, especially in education.”

He said PE teachers at other district high school have expressed interest in the concept and some already offer a choice of activities, but they don’t use heart rate monitors to measure effort or hold students accountable.

These watches are part of the heart rate monitor that students wear during PE.
These watches are part of the heart rate monitors that students wear during PE.

Meanwhile, at least one middle school in the Jeffco district uses pedometers much the same way Fairview uses heart rate monitors, but the choice component is absent. Whether it’s because of staffing limitations, space constraints or liability concerns, the idea of sending students to multiple locations during PE is an obvious sticking point for many schools.

“I know there’s some high schools there’s no way that could happen,” said Brittenham. “There’s no way you could have them not be directly supervised.”

The technology price tag is also formidable. Fairview, where all students must take three semesters of PE to graduate, spent about $12,000 on heart rate monitors as well as extra chest straps so students could have their own.

Money and other challenges aside, students like Mariano Kemp believe PE by Choice makes sense. The ninth-grader, a half back on the freshman football team, had a sheen of sweat on his face after a he spent the recent second-period class lifting weights.

“It’s really…how they should treat a PE class, to get the kids as fit as possible, to push you to the best [of your] ability.”

How I Help

Students were obsessed with social media. Here’s what this middle school counselor did about it.

PHOTO: Hero Images | Getty Images

In our “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers, and psychologists who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Students at Eagle Valley Middle School in western Colorado were spending lots of time on social media, and too often their comments turned mean. Counselor Kayleen Schweitzer decided things needed to change, so last year she spearheaded a schoolwide campaign urging students, staff and parents to take a five-day break from social media. More than 150 people signed the pledge.

The results were encouraging. Participating students reported that they had more free time and were getting to bed earlier. Some even said the break made them realize they had been addicted to social media.

Schweitzer, who was named 2018 Middle School Counselor of the Year by the Colorado School Counselor Association, talked about how campaign organizers got students to participate, what she wants parents to know about middle-schoolers, and why she wants students to regard visiting a counselor as normal.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?

When I was 15, I lost my father. It was very unexpected and I found out at school. When I returned to school no one checked on me or followed up to see if I was doing OK. I remember wishing I had more support at school. That was the first time I realized that one day I wanted to be someone who could be there for students going through a hard time or transition.

When I was in college my favorite classes had to do with child development. I went on to pursue a degree in family and human services and a graduate degree in school counseling. I’m definitely happy with my decision to be a school counselor and I look forward to going to work every day.

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

In the 2016-17 school year, my principal Katie Jarnot and I identified a need for something that would help with some of the conflicts occurring at our school. Katie came across a national program called No Place For Hate. It was just what we were looking for. In the 2017-18 school year, we brought No Place For Hate to our school. It has been amazing and powerful.

We noticed a lot of mean behavior on social media and that our students were spending so much time online. Also, with a surge of recent research into the detrimental effects of screen time, social media, and the correlation to depression and anxiety, it was clear there needed to be a change. So Eagle Valley Middle School’s No Place for Hate Coalition created a schoolwide activity that attempted to give students, staff, and parents a glimpse into positives that can come from limiting social media use and taking back control of our lives. We asked our school community to commit to giving up social media for five days.

During those five days, everyone who took the pledge was asked to do a daily reflection on the differences that they noticed. We offered a chance to win prizes as an incentive. To our surprise, we had 110 students (about one-third of our school), 18 staff, and 30 parents sign up.

Though not everyone completed the five days, we felt we brought some awareness to this problem. Students noticed how much more time they had when not using social media and they were able to get to bed earlier. Some actually admitted this activity helped them realize that they are addicted to social media. A few parents reported they were able to be more present with their family at night and have fewer distractions.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?

The tool I couldn’t live without is Google forms. Students can fill out a form to let me know they need to see me. When they fill out the form it notifies me with an email and I can see who is requesting to see me. It also allows me to keep data on what issues my students need support with. This helps me plan what supports I need to put in place through classroom guidance lessons, small groups, and individual counseling.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?

The biggest misconception I have encountered is that it’s a bad thing to go to the school counselor and that you need to have a huge problem. I have noticed that some middle school students are embarrassed to be seen going to the school counselor. I have worked really hard to make it normal to come to me and teach them that the strongest, most successful people need help sometimes.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?

I would remind parents that students’ frontal lobes are not fully developed and when they say they don’t know why they did something, they are probably being honest. I would also let them know that even if a student says they want parents to give them space and leave them alone, it’s not really what they want or need.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?

I have a student who is now in eighth grade and has been coming to see me on a regular basis when she needs support. As a sixth-grader, she was so closed off and worried about being seen coming to talk to me. I have been very consistent with her and kept reminding her that I’m always here if she needs anything. I ended up running a group with her and a lot of her friends. She saw that her friends loved coming to see me and were willing to talk to work through some of their problems. I also spent time with her and showed her it was a safe place to talk. Over time she broke down her walls and was able to trust me. Today, she stops by when she is doing well and when she is struggling. She loves to come and eat lunch with me. She has grown so much and I’m going to miss her dearly when she goes to high school.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is going home and worrying about my students. You always wish you could do more or make students see things can get better and they are enough. Middle school is such a hard time for students as they struggle to find where they fit in and deal with personal changes.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

In my first years as a school counselor, I had a student who was consistently falling asleep in class and missing a ton of school. When I had a meeting with his family, I found out that his mother was a single mom and his grandma, who also lived in the house, was very sick. The student was staying home to help take care of his grandma and his siblings so his mom could work and make money for the family. His father was an alcoholic who was in and out of rehab.

I realized that different cultures have unique values and priorities. It also taught me that you never know what someone is going through so we need to really take time to talk to kids to figure out what is happening in their personal lives before jumping to conclusions.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?

The way I wind down after a stressful day is to come home and spend time with my children. They are still young and innocent. I try to really enjoy this precious time with them when they have fewer worries and just want to have fun. I also love spending time with friends and clearing my mind of the worries of my job. Last, I enjoy catching up with email and work-related tasks as every time I scratch out something on my to-do list I seem to get stress relief.

Chilling effect

Five ways a proposed immigration rule could impact Colorado students and schools

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images

Advocates for immigrant families fear that a proposed federal rule governing green card decisions could lead to more children going hungry and losing housing and health care. That, in turn, could pose challenges for educators and schools.

The proposed rule would allow the government to penalize some legal immigrants who have used public benefits by denying them permanent residency — a possibility that could prompt families to forgo any kind of government help. For children in those families, many of them citizens, the result could be hunger pangs, untreated illness, or outsized worry that their parents won’t be able to stay in the U.S. Inside schools, the new rule could mean more time and energy spent addressing students’ basic needs and the loss of funding from some public programs.

Fear that immigrants will shy away from benefit programs is nothing new. Stricter immigration rules since President Trump took office — stepped-up raids, efforts to discontinue the DACA program, and family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border — have already led to a chilling effect on the legal use of public benefits by immigrants. Advocates say changes to the so-called “public charge” rule will only exacerbate the problem.

The rationale behind the proposed rule, a stricter version of one that’s been in place for years, is to prevent immigration by people who will end up dependent on government help. Opponents of the rule say it punishes working-class immigrants who may need short-term aid, but contribute much more to the country’s economy over the long term.

The existing public charge rule penalizes immigrants for using programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or long-term care. The proposed version adds several more to the list, including Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. Free and reduced-price school meals aren’t included in the existing or proposed rule.

Mónica Parra, program manager of the Denver school district’s migrant education program, said families she works with are reluctant to sign up for any kind of help, even assistance heating their homes during the winter.

“They’d rather struggle or find other ways to get support,” she said. “It’s going to be very challenging to keep students motivated, but also safe. Maybe they’re going to be cold. Maybe they’re going to get sick.”

The proposed public charge rule doesn’t apply to refugees and asylum-seekers, and doesn’t penalize immigrants for public benefits used by their children. Still, like other advocates, Parra said she hears anxiety about the proposed rule from all kinds of immigrants, including citizens and those who already hold green cards.

They worry that using public benefits could get their own legal status revoked or hurt their chances to sponsor family members who want to immigrate to the U.S.

“The fear has always been there in these communities,” she said. “Now, people are even more afraid.”

The new public charge rule likely won’t take effect for months. First, there will be a 60-day public comment period, scheduled to start Wednesday, and then Trump administration officials will consider the comments and decide whether to make any adjustments.

Here’s a look at some of the ways the proposed rule could affect Colorado schools and students.

More kids come to school hungry

There are at least two ways schools could see more hungry students walking through their doors due to the public charge rule. First, families may be afraid to take advantage of food stamps — either by deciding not to enroll, or by dis-enrolling current recipients, such as citizen children.

Both Denver and Adams counties have seen dips in the number of people participating in the program over the last couple years. In Denver, about 2,000 fewer children receive the benefit now than in November 2016 when President Trump was elected. However, city officials caution that it’s hard to make a direct connection between falling participation and federal immigration policies since historically low unemployment rates may also be contributing to the trend.

While free and discounted school lunches are not part of the public charge rule, some advocates report that immigrant parents have been wary of enrolling their kids since Trump’s election. By law, public schools must serve students regardless of their immigration status and can’t ask for information regarding a family’s or student’s status.

A week after the Department of Homeland Security released a draft of the new public charge rule on its website, the Eagle County school district emailed parents asking them to help squash the rumor that signing children up for free or reduced-lunches “will inform ICE,” a reference to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The letter concluded, “There is NO RISK in applying for free and reduced lunch, help us spread the word.”

So, what happens when kids go to school hungry? They may have trouble paying attention, misbehave more easily, or suffer from headaches or stomach aches. In short, less learning.

More children without health insurance, more student absences

The public charge rule’s chilling effect could have a major impact on child health, according to a recent Colorado Health Institute analysis. An estimated 48,000 Colorado children — the vast majority of them citizens — could be disenrolled from one of two public health insurance programs, Medicaid or Child Health Plan Plus. That would double the state’s rate of uninsured children from 3 percent to 6.7 percent, according to the institute.

The reason for so much dropoff is that health insurance is typically a family affair. So even when different rules govern adults and children in the same family, they tend to be enrolled as a group or not at all.

When students don’t have health insurance, school attendance and performance can suffer. For example, children may be absent more if they lack help managing chronic conditions like asthma, or if they’re not getting treatment for acute illnesses or painful dental problems.

Loss of health-related funding for schools and school-based clinics

School districts stand to lose two health-related funding streams if the number of uninsured children swells. The first would impact the state’s 62 school-based health clinics, which would likely see a drop in Medicaid and Child Health Plan Plus reimbursements if fewer students enroll in those programs.

Such an enrollment decline, which some clinic leaders have already reported, could make it harder for school-based clinics to stay afloat financially, said Bridget Beatty, executive director of the Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care.

With more uninsured students, “The need will go up,” she said, “but conversely the ability to financially sustain them will get more challenging.” 

In addition, 53 Colorado school districts receive funding through a program that could be affected by the proposed public charge rule. It’s called the School Health Services Program and allows districts to seek Medicaid reimbursements for services provided to low-income students with disabilities. That money can be used for health-related efforts that benefit all students, such as the addition of school nurses, wellness coordinators, or suicide prevention programs.

Funding received through the program ranges from a couple thousand dollars in small districts to a few million in large districts.

High-poverty schools have a harder time offering universal free meals

Nearly 40,000 students in 20 Colorado school districts can eat school meals for free because their schools participate in a federal program designed to make breakfast and lunch easily accessible to low-income students. But that number could drop if the public charge rule decreases food stamp participation.

The special meal program, called Community Eligibility Provision, is open to schools or districts where at least 40 percent of students come from families that use certain public benefits, including food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Unlike in traditional school lunch programs, parents don’t have to fill out applications for free or reduced-price meals.

“Any time when you have eligible families not participating in SNAP, it does have a negative impact on community eligibility,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the national nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.

Even if schools or districts remain eligible for the program, a drop in students getting public benefits could mean a change in how schools are reimbursed for the free meals, she said. That, in turn, could make the program less financially viable for schools or districts to participate.

Immigrants could turn away from publicly funded early childhood programs

Crystal Munoz, who heads the nonprofit Roots Family Center in southwest Denver, worries that the Spanish-speaking families her program serves will stop using programs like Head Start, state child care subsidies, and the Denver Preschool Program, which provides tuition assistance to the city’s 4-year-olds.

Even though those programs aren’t part of the proposed rule, there’s still trepidation, she said. It’s because of the constant flurry of rule changes and the generally negative tone around immigration right now.

“We find ourselves very afraid to even give out resources or referrals to certain programs because we’re not sure,” she said. “For us, it’s waiting and seeing.”

She said if families do drop out of Head Start or other child care programs, it could push children — many of them citizens — into unlicensed care with relatives or neighbors, or force parents to cut back work hours to stay at home with them.