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.”

Frequently asked

There are lots of ways schools teach English learners. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Lindsey Erisman works with 6-year-old students in an English Language Acquisition class at Denver's Cole Arts & Science Academy.

School district officials in Westminster this year signed an agreement with federal officials to change how they educate students who are learning English as a second language.

Similar agreements have also shaped how districts in Denver, Aurora, Adams 14, and Adams 12 educate their English language learner students. But many people, including parents and district insiders, may still have questions about the various complicated programs and requirements.

Although many of the language-education agreements are years old, most of the issues haven’t been resolved. In Adams 14, for instance, parents and advocates have protested a district decision to stop biliteracy programming, and have questioned the district’s compliance with its agreement to better serve English learners. District officials have pointed out that their obligation is teaching students English, not making them bilingual.

Now at least one charter school, KIPP, is looking to fill in that programming gap. Many other states have had a number of biliteracy and other bilingual programs at various schools for years, but Colorado has only more recently started to follow those trends.

So what’s the difference between the various language programs and services? And what is required by law and what isn’t? The following questions and answers might help clarify some of those questions as you follow the news around these issues.

Which students are designated as English language learners? Do parents get to decide, or do schools decide?

Federal guidance requires school districts have some way to identify English learners. Most commonly, districts survey all parents at school registration about their home language and the student’s first language. If that survey finds there might be an influence of another language at home, the student must be assessed to determine fluency in English. While the district has to identify all students who aren’t fluent in English as language learners, parents in Colorado can choose to waive the federally required services for their children. If so, the district doesn’t have to provide special services, but would still be required to monitor that the student is making progress toward acquiring English.

What educational rights do English language learners have?

English language learners have specific rights under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case from 1974 and the subsequent Castañeda standards released in 1981. State laws also outline some requirements for school districts. Specifically, school districts must provide programs for all identified language learners to give them the opportunity to learn English and to access a comprehensive curriculum. The government does not state what that program should be, but provides some standards requiring that any program is theoretically sound and has a research base to support it. The program has to have qualified teachers, and a way to demonstrate that students are making progress in learning English and their academic content. While the civil rights officials consider many details to verify compliance, simply put, school districts have the legal obligation to identify students, serve them in a sound program, and monitor their progress.

What is the difference between bilingual education and “ELL services?”

Bilingual education (which is the program that has the most support for efficacy from the research community) offers students opportunities to learn in their native language while they are learning English. Bilingual programs can vary from short-term, or early-exit programs, to more longer-term developmental programs.

English language learner services do not need to provide opportunities for students to learn in the native language. Most commonly these services only offer English language development classes (generally 45 minutes per day). All other content instruction is offered only in English. ELL services are not bilingual.

What is English language development?

English language development must be a part of any program or model a district or school adopts. It is the class time when students are taught the English language. The government wants to see that English learners are given a dedicated time to learn English, when they are not competing with native English speakers. That means, often, English language development is offered as a time when students are pulled out of class to practice English, or as a special elective period students must take without their English-speaking peers.

The structure of this time period, who has access to it, or who teaches it, are areas commonly cited as problems by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Do students who are identified as English language learners retain that designation forever? What does it mean to be an “exited ELL?”

They’re not supposed to. Students who are English learners should be tested at least once a year to determine their English proficiency. When a student reaches a high enough level, school staff must determine if the student is now fluent in English. If so, the student becomes an “exited ELL.” The law requires districts to monitor for two years students who have exited and are no longer receiving services. There are, however, students who do not reach English fluency before graduating or leaving school.

What is the difference between being bilingual and being biliterate?

Bilingual generally refers to oral language in that bilingual people can understand and speak two languages but may not be able to read and write in those languages. Biliterate refers to being able to understand, speak, read, and write in two languages. Many people are bilingual but not biliterate. Biliteracy is considered to be a higher form of bilingualism.

What is the difference between dual language and biliteracy models?

Dual language and biliteracy models share many common components. Both models usually have biliteracy as their end goal for students. Dual language models may be “one-way” or “two-way.” One-way programs generally serve students who are designated as English language learners (also sometimes called emerging bilinguals). Two-way dual language programs include students who are native English speakers. The only major difference is that biliteracy models focus on using two languages in the language arts or literacy classes (reading and writing in two languages) whereas dual language focuses on using two languages across the entire school day’s curriculum.

What is an immersion model?

Immersion models traditionally are thought of as referring to programs primarily intended for students from the dominant language population to learn a second language. This is different from programs meant to teach English.

While native English students can choose whether or not to learn a second language, students who are English language learners do not have a choice in learning English.

What is sheltered instruction?

This type of instruction takes place in non-dual language schools, during regular content classes (such as math or science), and it’s one way schools try to make the content understandable to students who aren’t yet fluent in English.

This is especially common in schools where English learners speak a variety of languages. Crawford Elementary in Aurora, for instance, has had up to 35 different languages represented among its approximately 560 students. If there aren’t enough students who speak a common first language and also a teacher who speaks the same language as those students, then schools must teach through English, while making the English as accessible as possible.

In practice, this means an English-speaking teacher would use sheltered instruction techniques to help all children understand the lessons such as, physical props, a focus on building vocabulary, and sentence stems.

Denver designates schools as TNLI schools. What does that mean?

Denver created the TNLI label in 1999 to set the district apart from other bilingual program models. TNLI stands for Transitional Native Language Instruction. The Denver TNLI program is a transitional bilingual education program model with a label created just for Denver. It’s a model where the native language is used to help students learn while they’re acquiring English, but still has a goal of making students fluent in English as soon as possible, at which point students move into mainstream English classrooms.

Is one of these models best suited for English learners?

Among researchers, it is commonly accepted that dual language or biliteracy models are the most effective to put English learners on par with their native speaking peers, in the long run.

Why do teachers have to be trained specifically to teach this population of students? What are teachers learning?

Educators and researchers say that teachers need to learn the differences and similarities between learning in one language and learning bilingually. Teachers need to learn about literacy methodology and how teaching literacy in Spanish (for example) is the same and different as teaching literacy in English. They have to learn how to teach English language development to students who are beginning to learn English (it is different than just teaching in English). These trainings also help teachers learn about cultural similarities and differences and about sources of culture conflict. Teachers need to be able to teach children English; how to use English to learn; and how the English language works. In bilingual settings teachers need to learn those three things for two languages. In short, the training needed to be a bilingual teacher is quite different. Colorado will soon require some of this training for all teachers.

What are the challenges districts have in offering these different programs? How do schools decide which type of model to offer?

The demographics of a district’s student population, and district politics play a large part in helping a district decide what model or program to use. Resources can also be a factor in deciding how to structure services or what programs to offer. In Adams 14, when the district leadership decided to pause the roll out of a biliteracy program, the district cited a lack of qualified bilingual teachers, among other things.

In Westminster, the school district’s unique competency-based approach, which removes grade levels and seeks to personalize instruction, was cited as a reason why the district had structured its English language development the way it had before the investigation by the Office for Civil Rights sought to change it.

Does Colorado provide guidance or oversight for how districts are doing this work?

The Colorado Department of Education offers some guidance for districts, but oversight of the districts’ compliance with what is required is limited. In practice, when parents suspect their children aren’t educated well, they have filed complaints with the federal government. In Denver, the complaints went through the Department of Justice. Investigations of most other metro-area districts have been conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.