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.”

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.