Getting - and keeping - students interested in P.E. classes these days is no simple task. But some educators are doing their best to make lifelong fitness appealing to kids.

During his 23 years as a physical education teacher and department head at Salmon (Idaho) High School, Zane Abbott has never purchased a ball. Instead, scenic Lemhi County - "the playground of the world," according to some travel agencies - is his classroom, and mountain bikes, kayaks, backpacks, Nordic and Alpine skis, snowboards, snorkeling gear and fishing poles are his equipment. Located on the Continental Divide and surrounded by mountain ranges, Salmon High School is spread over 15 acres of land, with an outdoor pool, a city park, the Salmon River, Salmon National Forest, numerous foothills and other natural resources only minutes away.

"I came from one of those throw-out-the-ball physical education programs, where the instructor stood around with a cup of coffee in his hand," says Abbott, who took classes himself to learn some of the activities he teaches. "But face it, once you get out of school, how many times are you going to play dodgeball? There are people traveling thousands of miles to get here, and the local kids have no idea what's at their disposal. We have a lot of natural features here that other schools don't."

Indeed, most high-school officials in other communities would be hard-pressed to find the resources so abundant in Salmon, but that doesn't mean they can't implement new and creative ways to teach physical education.

Lifetime fitness programs, for example, such as the ones offered at Salmon High School, help students discover activities they'll be able to enjoy as adults in their own communities. Similarly, physical education programs at other schools are incorporating cardio and strength training, requiring students to write their own fitness programs, and placing heart monitors on all students, whose performances are graded based on how long they remain in a specified heart-rate zone.

Some students are even being introduced to lifetime fitness activities at the middle-school level. Sue Ball, a physical education instructor at Prairie View Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wis., recently completed a series of field trips to the nearby Gold's Gym in Madison, to which she belongs. Most of the school's 530 sixth, seventh and eighth graders toured the facility and participated in 30-minute aerobox and group cycling classes. "Kids are so conditioned into thinking that fitness is just running," Ball says. "I wanted our kids to experience a lot of different ways they can become fit."

Unfortunately, the mood elsewhere isn't as optimistic. In Idaho Falls, for example - about three-and-a-half hours southeast of Salmon - P.E. instructors at Idaho Falls and Skyline high schools are mourning the loss of one physical education credit, which brings the total required for graduation down to one. That translates to about 60 days over three years. District 91 school board members reduced the number of credits effective with the incoming 2000-2001 class.

"Their justification was that they needed to add a technical credit for graduation," says Tammy Sorensen, head of Skyline's P.E. department and its volleyball coach. "We agree with that need, but we feel that they can add a technical credit without taking away another credit. They just don't think there's a need for physical education, even though we showed them study after study justifying that need."

Sorensen and her P.E. colleagues even rewrote a new curriculum proposal, part of which the board adopted. A new Intro to Fitness class for sophomores will include cardio, aerobic and muscular strength units, but it replaces units that featured team and lifetime sports. "I don't think this is something that's going to be reversed," Sorensen says about the credit reduction. "We'll lose some sections, so ultimately [a teacher] is going to be cut down the line."

Idaho Falls is not alone. For every success story, there are at least two or three troublesome tales. Students at Alhambra High School in Martinez, Calif., for example, take two-and-a-half years of P.E. in order to graduate - a semester more than the state requires. But earlier this year, Lan Diep, a college-bound student, presented a petition signed by 400 fellow students to the district's school board, asking members to do away with the extra semester of mandated physical education. Dave Silveria, chairman of the school's physical education department, says the students claim time spent exercising their bodies could be better spent exercising their minds. "They see P.E. class as an inconvenience," he says. At press time, the board was in the process of reviewing all graduation requirements.

Not even all student-athletes are proponents of physical education. Emily Crink­law, a member of the swim and tennis teams at LaFayette High School in Williamsburg, Va., enlisted two state delegates - George W. Grayson (D-James City) and Phillip Hamilton (R-Newport News) - to sponsor a bill allowing her to count her participation in school sports as her physical education credits. She couldn't take calculus, biology and physical education classes and still participate in sports, she argued in the pages of the Newport Beach Daily Press.

Not so fast, countered Jeannie Trainum, a physical education curriculum coordinator for the Williamsburg-James City County school system, who said in the same article that participation in interscholastic athletics would not meet all of the requirements of a P.E. program designed to develop lifelong fitness habits. "Health and physical education has always been considered an academic subject," she told the Daily Press.

If that's the case, the Kennedale (Texas) School Board - in a move one administrator calls "fairly common" among districts - may inadvertently be depriving students of a well-rounded education. Effective this school year, the board gave its blessing to allow students in grades 7 through 12 to replace their P.E. classes with organized off-campus activities - swimming, dance, ice skating, gymnastics, equestrian, fencing, hockey, soccer and wrestling - not offered by district schools. The person in charge of each activity documents the student's participation and determines a grade, which is factored into a student's overall grade-point average.

The impetus, explains Nancy Blount, director of instructional services for the district, was parents' claims that there is not enough time for their kids to participate in both extracurricular activities and physical education.

Both P.E. and extracurricular athletic activities appear to be dying in New York City, a place where they once flourished. Many New York high school students used to take P.E. class five days a week - double the minimum state requirement at the time. That level of participation gave way in the '90s to two days one week and three days the next. At about the same time, the city's Bureau of Physical Education, which had been part of the Division of Curriculum and Instruction, was dismantled, silencing a voice that had long defended physical education programs come budget time.

The city's public high school system also provides no money for team uniforms, asks varsity football and other coaches to run their programs on budgets of $100, and does not fund any gym equipment, according to a recent study conducted by The New York Times.

Hector Martinez, the athletic director at West Side High School in midtown Manhattan, told the Times earlier this year that he had to borrow money from the school's health department budget just to obtain secondhand weight-lifting machines that now sit in a converted classroom at his school.

Such scenarios in New York City, Kennedale, Williamsburg, Martinez, Idaho Falls and countless other communities stem from the belief of administrators, parents and students that time spent on physical education could be better spent elsewhere during the school day - a notion Judy Young, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, in Reston, Va., doesn't buy. "No matter how world-class we try to make our students in math and science, if we can't keep them physically active and healthy, we're not really moving ahead."

Back in the early 1960s, high-school "gym class" - as it's become commonly known - meant "somebody with a fat belly who watched over you and barked orders," says Paul Zientarski, chairman of the physical education, driver's education and health departments at Naperville (Ill.) Central High School, which recently opened a $150,000 fitness room for its 2,800 students. Regimentation and discipline were key characteristics of the curriculum. In the late '60s, P.E. classes included such activities as bowling and bocce.

Then came the 1970s, when teachers concentrated on sports playable within the confines of school facilities. Instructors relied on basketball, volleyball, track and other activities that could be played inside a gymnasium. They also reconfigured the rules of racquetball, handball and other sports so they could be played with temporary walls.

In the mid-'70s, Title IX hit, throwing boys and girls - who up until then had participated in separate activities in separate areas of a facility - into physical education classes together. Perhaps because physical education instructors weren't quite sure how to properly integrate boys and girls into the same activities, many opted to focus increasingly on rules, written tests and skill assessments rather than actual physical activity during the 1980s. Every curriculum unit included quizzes about rules, and rope climbing often became the activity du jour.

Today, many schools' programs continue to evolve, featuring "adaptive P.E. classes" on nutrition, weight loss and other pertinent issues; fitness classes; and games like "pass football," a form of flag football/rugby where the goal is to keep passing the ball to teammates without getting tagged until the ball is thrown over the goal line for a score. The objective is to keep students moving, not teach them the intricacies of an I-formation.

"Imagine a high school physical education program that operates like a health club, where kids have the freedom to choose what activities they want to participate in," says Paul Rosengard, executive director of SPARK (Sports, Play & Active Recreation for Kids), a fitness, physical education and health program headquartered at San Diego State University and funded through research grants from the National Institute of Health.

Along those lines, P.E. instructors are updating their schools' curricula to include both more-varied activities and ways to better assess what students are learning. It's important for students to set their own fitness goals, move away from extremely competitive activities and develop skills common to many activities, thereby gaining a sense of competence, says former high school P.E. instructor Marian Franck, director of a Pennsylvania project called "Physical Education-Learning Is For Everyone," or P.E.-L.I.F.E. She's also a P.E. curriculum consultant for schools.

Part of the Pennsylvania State Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, P.E.-L.I.F.E. is a 22-year-old nonprofit, individualized program that focuses on developing sequential learning tasks to help students advance at their own pace. One of P.E.-L.I.F.E.'s objectives at the high-school level is setting goals and gaining a sense of competency in many activities.

Assessments are used to document individual achievement and to prescribe appropriate learning tasks. For example, coaches do an excellent job of breaking down isolated skills, applying them in game-like drills and then fitting them into the overall framework of an activity, Franck says. "But coaches seem to lose sight of that when teaching physical education," she adds. "Teachers want the kids to have fun. But it's not fun to be thrown into a game that they don't understand."

Despite progressive efforts at various district and state levels, Illinois remains the only state requiring students to take a specific amount of physical education from kindergarten through grade 12. But even that requirement appears in jeopardy, thanks to a state waiver that allows school boards to reduce the number of mandated credits for courses not funded by the state - such as physical education. Many boards have already exercised that option, Zientarski says. "What's unfortunate is that these schools are shortsighted in their focus. P.E. - especially a fitness-based curriculum - is one of the most important classes a student can take."

While 47 states had some sort of mandate for physical education on the books in 1997, the majority of today's high school students take only one year of P.E., according to 1997 statistics from NASPE.

Meanwhile, the physical condition of America's youth is declining. Almost half of the people between the ages of 12 and 21 - and more than a third of high school students - do not regularly participate in vigorous physical activity, according to a 1997 report, Guidelines for School and Community Programs: Promoting Lifelong Physical Activity, issued by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. And while physical-activity levels may peak in the tenth grade at a median of 11 hours per week, those numbers steadily drop as kids get older.

"Where the real decline has come is at schools that do not require physical education," NASPE's Young says. "The likelihood of students taking it as an elective has declined. When you have any elective, you're marketing to the client. And you have to present the client with decent options."

"Everybody who comes here doesn't enjoy our physical education program," admits Wanda Lukas, who's been teaching P.E. at Mt. Hope High School in Bristol, R.I., since 1972. "We have students who don't want to participate and who make our lives miserable when they come to class. Moving around has never been a part of their lives and perhaps never will be. But our job is to differentiate between a gym teacher and a physical education teacher. A gym teacher throws a ball out; a physical educator prepares lessons that have purpose. We're doing a job, but I can't tell you how successful we are. There's no way to assess that. Are we preparing kids to stay healthy and fit? Yes. Will they continue to do that in the future? Who knows?"

To ensure that the answers to those questions become a resounding "yes," a coalition of sporting goods retailers and manufacturers - including Nike, Pro Player, Reebok, The Sports Authority and Wilson Sporting Goods - recently joined forces to support the Physical Education for Progress (PEP) Act. The bill, introduced in the U.S. Senate in May by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), calls for a minimum of 150 minutes per week of physical education for all of the nation's students and would fund $400 million in appropriations spread over five years. The money would be used to increase and train staff, develop new curricula and purchase new equipment. "PEP will serve as a catalyst for more money," says Jim Baugh, president of Wilson and PEP's spokesman for the manufacturers. "You spread $400 million around America, and it doesn't go anywhere."

A new Web site, www.weneedpe.com, is expected to be up and running by year's end, offering details about pending PEP legislation, information about how to contact state representatives and E-mail forms to send to those representatives voicing support for the bill. Sporting goods dealers also are encouraging customers to sign a petition supporting the act. "Nobody can stand in the way of this bill," Baugh says. "It's not just right for sporting goods manufacturers; it's right for America."

And America still has plenty of physical-education supporters - beginning at the elementary-school level. Project A.C.E.S. (All Children Exercise Simultaneously), now in its twelfth year, is an annual national day of exercise sponsored by the nonprofit Youth Fitness Coalition. With the help of the coalition, schools across the country plan and promote the day, which falls on the first Wednesday in May. Media reports are collected from Project A.C.E.S. events and presented to members of the President's Council on Physical Fitness & Sports. More than 10 million kids participate, estimates H.J. Saunders, president and founder of the Youth Fitness Coalition, and that number climbs every year.

Meanwhile, fresh from her successful Gold's Gym excursion, Prairie View's Ball is hoping to organize a Spring Fun Run. Students and teachers would challenge the community to participate in a two-mile run that would raise money to build an aerobics studio at each of Sun Prairie's middle schools. Elsewhere, P.E. instructors at Montgomery Middle School in El Cajon, Calif., recently built a climbing wall by bolting molded handholds to a gymnasium wall and placing mats on the floor. Students climb a short height and then move laterally, building strength and coordination. The highest handhold is not even 7 feet off the ground. "Any school can do that; you just need a wall," SPARK's Rosengard says.

But at the high-school level is where the P.E. fun can really kick in. Naperville Central offers students several electives - rollerblading, swing dance and kayaking among them - to fulfill 20 required P.E. and health credits (six in fitness, four in team sports, three in individual sports, two in dance, two in gymnastics, two in aquatics and one in CPR). Naper-ville students must take a total of 27 P.E. credits and one health credit to graduate, and their P.E. grades are counted in their grade-point average.

"For a long time, P.E. programs and teachers were their own worst enemies," Zientarski says. "We really catered to the jock mentality. If you only offer basketball and volleyball, the only kids who really excel at those activities are the athletes. Now, whether kids make a basket or not is irrelevant. If they've gone about shooting the ball the right way, they'll get a good grade. It's kind of hard to mess up in P.E. You'd really have to work hard - actually, not work hard - to fail."

Because of the school's wide variety of P.E. options, doctor's notes excusing students from class are no longer accepted. Some of Naperville Central's 18 P.E. teachers met with area doctors and explained to them that if a student injures his or her knee, that person still can participate in a non-weight-bearing activity, such as swimming. "We said to the doctors, 'Don't tell us what the kids can't do; tell us what they can do, and we'll find the activity for them,'" Zientarski says. "If a kid comes in with two broken legs and two broken arms, we can put a whistle in his or her mouth and have that person officiate a volleyball game."

The success of the school's physical-education programs has convinced the Naperville Unit District 203 school board that physically fit students do make a difference in their schools. And to show its support, the board is buying 150 heart monitors each for Naperville Central and North high schools, 50 monitors each for the district's five middle schools and 12 monitors each for 15 elementary schools. At $150 a pop, the move is no small commitment, and it will leave Naperville Central with 200 monitors, including 50 purchased by Zientarski through such fund-raising efforts as selling food to students on half-days when the cafeteria is closed and charging an extra $2 per student for activity participation.

Equally adept at fund-raising is Elaine Ruben, assistant principal of health, physical education and dance at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens, N.Y. Many of the school's facilities are financed that way - including a track and handball and tennis courts. "Cardozo is known for excellence in athletics," she says, explaining that the curriculum for juniors and seniors includes weight training, aerobics, fencing, lacrosse, yoga and stress management. "For a New York City school, we're very fortunate to have the facilities and equipment we have."

A quality physical-education program also impacts the quality of a school's athletic teams. Cardozo is an excellent example. Given the school's 23-member physical education staff and its commitment to P.E., it's no surprise that several of the school's 27 varsity and junior-varsity teams have been ranked No. 1 in the city in several sports. "Our P.E. programs are so exceptional that they just sort of segue into our JV and varsity programs," Ruben says. "They certainly have an effect on our team sports."

Salmon High School's P.E. program, now a model for Idaho schools, goes a step further and impacts students' lifestyles. "When I first came here, it was unheard of to see a kid with a kayak rack on his car," Abbott says. "Now there are at least five or six in the parking lot every day. This is what keeps me going."

Initially, however, Abbott came under fire from school administrators for his unconventional, no-balls-allowed teaching techniques. "I got questioned a lot," he says. "The superintendent followed me around and watched what I was doing."

But today, district officials and the school board couldn't be more supportive of Abbott. His 1999-2000 budget allotment for the physical education department is the high school's largest ($2,308, plus a $15 fee for students' elective courses.) The English department is next in line with a budget of $2,116. Abbott has convinced area businesses to donate equipment such as ice skates and fly-tying machines, while others have donated money, time or building materials. And the county's highway department dumped fill behind the school to be used for a ski hill large enough to complete four or five downhill turns. The proj­ect was expected to be completed in time for Salmon's winter trimester.

Programs such as those at Salmon, Cardozo, Naperville Central, El Cajon and Prairie View have helped raise awareness of an issue that many observers believe needs addressing. And if more parents and students - through public-information campaigns such as the PEP Web site - begin to demand better physical education programs, they will help P.E. instructors push the issue with school administrations without making themselves look self-serving.

"There's still hope out there," Saunders says. "It's not like physical education is wasting away. But imagine if the next generation of kids grows up strong and smart because they exercise regularly. That's got to impact future generations."

Saving Physical Education

When officials at Naperville (Ill.) Central High School decided to renovate a second-floor workout room into a first-class fitness center, they made sure that the facility would appeal to all students, faculty and staff - not just student-athletes. Sure, there are 21 pieces of plate-loaded equipment and 14 upper- and lower-body selectorized pieces for the jocks. But the center also houses free weights and a computer system that helps design and record workouts, providing motivation and tracking progress for users.

"That weight room will service every kid in the building," says Athletic Director Marty Bee. The $150,000 facility - financed by the school's booster club - is used every period by 40 to 80 students, he says, and it's open from 3:30 to 5 p.m. for the entire 2,800-member student body; after 5 p.m., student-athletes use the center for training. Bee is also considering adding an early-morning physical-education class in the facility.

The 6,000-square-foot facility opened in late September and replaces a mishmash of inefficient equipment dating back to 1969, including old hip sleds on chains at 45-degree angles and first-generation refurbished selectorized pieces. "Some of them looked like torture racks," Bee says. "I questioned the safety of them."

The only question being asked now is by officials at other schools who want to know when and how they can build such a facility, says Tony Novelli, a commercial account representative for The Fitness Experience in Elmhurst, Ill., and the man who designed and built the systems in Naperville Central's center. Novelli says he also recently designed an extensive workout circuit on a smaller scale at Glen Crest Middle School in Glen Ellyn, Ill. Such systems "legitimize physical education," he says.

Paul Zientarski, chairman of Naperville Central's physical education, health and driver's education department, agrees. "At least a dozen of my students have brought their parents to see the fitness room," he says. "Of course, the parents are impressed and supportive of the program. When I tell a parent that I can make a difference in the health of his or her son or daughter for the rest of that person's life, that makes a powerful impact. These are the things that will save physical education."