New Efforts to Revive Structured Physical Education Abound

Most school gymnasiums are filled more often than not these days - hosting much-needed blood drives, fundraisers for vital school and community needs, and revenue-generating offseason sports camps.

Children exercising in the gymnasium at Spring Grove (Pa.) Middle School are representative of America's renewed focus on physical activity. (Photo courtesy of York (Pa.) Daily Record/Sunday News)Children exercising in the gymnasium at Spring Grove (Pa.) Middle School are representative of America's renewed focus on physical activity. (Photo courtesy of York (Pa.) Daily Record/Sunday News)

Most school gymnasiums are filled more often than not these days - hosting much-needed blood drives, fundraisers for vital school and community needs, and revenue-generating offseason sports camps. But school gyms seem to be losing ground in one of the major activity areas for which they were designed: physical education classes.

Twenty-two states now allow required physical education credits to be earned through online courses, and 32 states permit students to substitute such activities as marching band, cheerleading and Army JROTC for their required P.E. credits. Those are among the distressing highlights of the "Shape of the Nation Report," published every five years by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education and the American Heart Association. The free document, most recently issued in 2010, is based on information provided by physical education coordinators in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and is used to identify successes and shortcomings in physical education.

While NASPE and the AHA recommend 225 minutes of physical education instruction per week, or 45 minutes per day, for middle and high school students - and 150 minutes per week for elementary school students - only Alabama abides by those guidelines. And just five other states (Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Vermont) require physical education every year from kindergarten through grade 12, according to the report.

"With only one state meeting nationally recommended minutes for physical education, our kids face an uphill battle to becoming more physically active," says Nancy Brown, chief executive officer of the American Heart Association. "We must do more to reverse this trend by urging states and local school districts to step up their requirements to improve the quality of their physical education programs."

Adds Lynn Couturier, NASPE president and chair of the physical education department at the State University of New York at Cortland, "Students are graduating without the benefits of having the knowledge, competence and skills they need to be physically active adults."

Enter the Let's Move in School campaign. Developed by NASPE in conjunction with the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance to support First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! anti-obesity initiative, Let's Move in School was introduced Feb. 1. Plans call for a full slate of related activities for National Physical Education and Sport Week, May 1-7, designed to engage students and increase school and community awareness about the purpose and value of physical education.

The goal of Let's Move in School is to ensure that all schools provide a comprehensive physical activity program. Seeking to involve educators, parents, school administrators and policymakers, it includes five components:

1.) physical education, the foundation on which everything else is built

2.) physical activity during school, in order to practice what students learn in P.E. classes

3.) physical activity before and after school, including interscholastic, club and intramural sports

4.) high-level support from school administrators, not just certified physical education teachers

5.) family and community involvement, allowing for maximum use of school gymnasiums and other facilities

(A webinar detailing each of these areas can be accessed at

Within weeks, Let's Move in School already had earned the support of leading national associations and corporate partners such as Playworld Systems, HOPSports and Hershey's Track and Field Games. It also spawned at least one state offshoot. Let's Move in Kansas Schools, part of the Kansas Health Foundation and Kansas AHPERD, is expected to provide funding and support to train physical education teachers in 200 schools throughout the state, who will then serve as certified directors of physical activity and lead implementation of a comprehensive physical activity program in their schools.

Individual school districts have taken up the gauntlet, too. The Spring Grove (Pa.) Area School Board in February was considering a requirement for students in grades nine and 10 to take daily P.E. and health classes for half the year; eleventh-graders would take P.E. (and not health), and seniors would be able to choose P.E. and health courses as electives.

Currently, two periods in a six-day cycle at Spring Grove Area High are devoted to P.E. and health education, but teachers and administrators told The York Dispatch that students are showing up unprepared for - and sometimes failing - those classes. A recent pilot program in the district in which only ninth-graders took daily P.E. and health classes resulted in significantly decreased student-failure rates among students in those classes. Principal Rosemary Cugliari told the paper that additional courses also were under consideration, including personal fitness, net and court games, and strength training.

The "2010 Shape of the Nation Report" wasn't all bad news: Incremental progress has been made in the number of states that now require student assessments in physical education, and 48 states have developed their own P.E. standards. But that's where the statistics begin to weaken again. Of those 48 states, only 34 require local school districts to comply with those standards.

The Carol M. White Physical Education Program grants, distributed by the Department of Education each year for the past decade, continue to help school districts find the means to bring more P.E. opportunities into gymnasiums around the country via equipment purchases and enhanced instructor education. In fact, the $80 million for fiscal year 2011 was a record high, bringing the total amount of PEP grant funding distributed to hundreds of organizations since 2001 to more than $600 million.

But as of this writing, that funding was in jeopardy. The U.S. House of Representatives did not include any PEP grant money in its version of the 2012 fiscal year budget. Threats to eliminate the program are nothing new, though. Between 2004 and 2008, proponents have managed to save the grant - thanks in part to the annual National Health Through Fitness Day, during which representatives from the sports, fitness and physical education industries intensely lobby lawmakers.

"With all the new members in Congress, it's imperative that they understand the adverse impact of sedentary living and appreciate the positive economic outcomes of healthier, more active lifestyles," says Bill Sells, vice president of government relations for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, which sponsors NHTF Day (held March 2). "Our goal is to save physical education in our schools."

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