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Cuts cost a gym-less school its physical education teacher, too

James Horan is used to being creative, after spending years teaching physical education at an elementary school without a gym or outdoor space of its own.

Now, like many other city teachers, he’s going to need to use that creativity to find another position.

Horan was recently excessed after teaching for four and a half years at PS 68 in Ridgewood, Queens. Even though the school’s population has been shrinking for years, Horan thought his job was safe because it wasn’t included in the list of projected layoffs that the city circulated in February.

When layoffs were averted, he joined the cheers — only to be told one month later that budget reductions made his position too expensive for the school to maintain. The city has not yet released details about how many teachers shared Horan’s fate this year, but after three straight years of cuts, the number is sure to be significant. Principals eliminated nearly 2,000 positions last year.

“I just find it very frustrating,” Horan said. “Now that I’m excessed, it’s just very unexpected. Until June, everything’s great. I would have planned differently.”

Horan came to PS 68 as a first-year teacher in the spring of 2007, teaching 30 to 50 students at a time in an empty classroom that served as the school’s gym. The school hadn’t offered physical education in at least three years, he said, and he bought the program’s only supplies himself using Teacher’s Choice funds. (Those funds were also eliminated this year.)

For the next couple of years, he didn’t have a classroom — “We have a city park next door, thank God,” he said — and on cold days he would rotate into regular classrooms.

“When you have to figure something out with 30 kids, you do it,” he said. “It was, OK, we’re going to kick a ball today. We’re going to learn how to run the bases, how to play tag. Anything really, to keep the kids active.”

Horan says that he’s heard that a classroom at PS 68 will be still be called the gym room next year. But since he heard that most teachers didn’t set aside time to take their students there before he launched formal physical education instruction, he doesn’t know that they will next year, either.

“The scores in our school weren’t the greatest, and we just got a new math program. The teachers want to teach the kids,” he said. “They have to watch out for their jobs as well.”

State law requires students in elementary school to receive 120 minutes of physical education a week, with daily activity in the lower grades and at least three weekly sessions in grades 4-6. Classroom teachers may lead the instruction, though the city encourages schools to hire certified physical education teachers, according to a Department of Education spokeswoman, Marge Feinberg.

Horan is still hoping to find a position at another school, but he suspects he’ll never have it as good again — teaching in a school close to home, with few discipline problems and a supportive principal.

“I had a great job. But I understand there are more important things than gym sometimes,” he said.

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