New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 11, 2012
More than a half-century ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower formed the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, and today Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Michelle Obama are among those making childhood obesity a public cause. But even as virtually every state has undertaken significant school reforms, many American students are being granted little or no time in the gym.
In its biennial survey of high school students across the nation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in June that nearly half said they had no physical education classes in an averageweek. In New York City, that number was 20.5 percent, compared with14.4 percent a decade earlier, according to the CDC.
That echoed findings by New York City’s comptroller, in October, of inadequate physical education at each of the elementary schools that auditors visited. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found just 20 percent of elementary schools in San Francisco’s system were meeting the state’s requirements: 20 minutes per day.
At Anatola Elementary School inVan Nuys, Calif., not only are there no gym teachers, but there is also no gym. The principal, Miriam King, has relied on $15-an-hour aides to oversee once-weekly exercise regimens for her 450 students at an outside playground.
“Sometimes, when it is raining, we just cancel,” King said.
In the Miami-Dade School District in Florida, physical education classes for middle school students were threatened bystate legislation last year, in the face of anemic local tax collections and dropping property values. But the district’s top health educator, Jayne D. Greenberg, watched in thankful relief as a grass-roots effort mounted enough political pressure to beat back the proposed cuts.
Still, Greenberg said, she has had to “double up some of the elementary physical education classes.”
In East Harlem, at TAG Young Scholars, an elementary and middle school for gifted students, there was no gym teacher for elementary students, according to Patricia Saydah, whose son Mitchell Deutsch just finished the first grade there. Art teachers and guidance counselors oversaw the classes, and students were sometimes called on to demonstrate stretching, Mitchell said. Next year threatens more hardship: One of the four schools that share TAG’s building is expanding, further straining the sole gym.
Saydah said she was concerned with Mitchell’s ability to focus in class without physical activity most days.
“He comes out of school and he is bouncing off the walls,” she said.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has proposed injecting language into the federal budget creating incentives for schools to report how much physical activity students are getting. He also asked the Government Accountability Office to look into the issue and, in February, it released a survey showing that while schools appeared more aware of the benefits of physical education, “they have reduced the amount of time spent” on such classes.
Principals most frequently blame budget cuts, and in New York, they also cite pressures to devote resources to test preparation, and what one union leader called a lack of interest from the department headquarters.
“There does not appear to be a promotion, or support, from the Department of Education for daily physical education in many of our high schools,” said Jeff Engel, a vice principal at Long Island City High School, in Queens, who is a member of the executive board of the principals’ union. He said that his own school provided daily physical education, but that many did not. “We have a huge obesity epidemic in the city, yet we see many of our high schools going to nondaily physical education.”
According to the city comptroller’s audit, none of the 31 elementary schools that auditors visited were holding physical education classes as frequently as required: every day for kindergarten through third grade and three times a week for grades four through six, for a minimum of 120 minutes weekly; and at least 90 minutes a week for grades seven and eight. In grades seven through 12, state guidelines call for physical education three times a week in one semester and twice a week in another.
Kathleen Grimm, New York City’s deputy schools chancellor for operations, said the Bloomberg administration required adequate physical education in schools, but acknowledged it had work to do. Since principals face challenges in providing space and time for those classes, she said, the administration hoped to put a plan in place by summer’s end to provide them “better support” across all areas of education, including physical education.
The department has not filed an overall physical education plan with the state since 1982, though state officials recommend a new one every seven years. A spokeswoman for the city schools says one will be presented in September.
Besides its value in fighting obesity, physical education has also been linked in some studies to good academic outcomes. Dr. John J. Ratey, a Harvard professor and author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” cited a 2010 study on the topic from the federal Health and Human Services Department.
“There is shrinking PE and recess time for our kids,” Ratey wrote. “PE teachers are fighting like cats and dogs to hold the line on their jobs and worth, at the same time as there is a dawning awareness that we have missed the boat.”
Despite the shortcomings in physical education, Bloomberg has received high marks from public health advocates for his anti-obesity policies, including calorie disclosures in chain restaurants, a proposed ban on large sugary drinks in certain settings, and limits on the calorie and sugar contents of food sold in school vending machines.
In the meantime, the city has promoted several school health initiatives, including 10-minute “fitness breaks” in classrooms and before- and after-school recreation for middle school students. And Grimm said that the city had been honored, nationally, for a program to assess students’ fitness and that 850,000 pupils had completed the program this year. In December, the city said that annual fitness exams given to most of the city’s kindergarten though eighth-grade students showed a 5.5 percent drop in the number of obese schoolchildren, the biggest decline reported by any large city. The exams showed 21 percent of children were obese, down from 22 percent.One elementary school making an effort is Sheridan Academy for Young Leaders, in the Bronx, where Ronny Rodriguez, a physical education instructor, ran 12 students through a rigorous 50-minute class one Friday last month.
Each student gets class once a week, far short of state requirements. During fitness breaks, students in science class stand and clap to the beat of a heart, and in social studies, they move as if navigating a rain forest.
Still, Rodriguez and Vicki Weiner, co-chairwoman of the school’s wellness program, wish more days had physical education.
As his perspiring first graders, some visibly overweight, poured out of the gym for the last time, Rodriguez addressed his “young leaders” and asked what they would do over the summer.
“Exercise!” came the choral reply.
“One day, or every day?” he asked. They replied, in unison: “Every day!”