The Other 60 Percent

A small band of schools believe in daily p.e.

Tucked away in cities like Denver and Loveland or rural communities like Las Animas and Haxtun, you will find schools where students get physical education daily. In a state that doesn’t require p.e. at all and where many students get it just a couple times a week, these schools are anomalies.

There’s Academy 360, a new charter school in Far Northeast Denver, that offers 45 minutes of p.e. a day as part its mission to educate the whole child. There’s B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland, which added 30 minutes of daily p.e. back in 2008 when declining enrollment prompted it to adopt a health and wellness focus. There’s Las Animas Middle School, located in southeast Colorado, which provides 55 minute of p.e. during all four days of its school week in part because most other electives have been cut.

While experts warn that not all daily p.e. is high quality, there is evidence that generally such offerings represent one of the highest-impact changes schools can make to help students move more. A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that instituting daily physical education classes for children boosts moderate to vigorous physical activity by 23 minutes a day, a higher number of minutes that any other policy evaluated.

Despite federal recommendations that children ages 6 to 17 get an hour of physical activity a day, only 49 percent of Colorado children ages 5 to 14 reached that threshold, according to 2011 data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Nationally, the numbers are similar, which is part of the reason the Chicago board of education voted last month to roll out daily p.e. for all students over the next three years. Although the Illinois School Code requires daily p.e., Chicago Public Schools has had a waiver exempting it from the requirement.

While the health advantages of physical education, and physical activity in general, are widely accepted, many educators say its purpose in schools goes much deeper. Citing brain research by John Ratey and John Medina, they say daily physical activity is a way to optimize student achievement.

“It’s really in the service of learning,” said Sally Sorte, principal of Academy 360, which also provides 15 minutes of morning movement and a 15-minute recess. “You see the benefits back in the classroom. Students are more calm. Their attention is better.”

Kristin Quere, the p.e. teacher at B.F. Kitchen, said, “If we want to provide our kids the optimal learning environment, and movement is a way to do that…we’re kind of missing the boat if we’re not providing that.”

At the Girls Athletic Leadership School, a charter middle school in central Denver, the dress code includes sneakers, exercise pants and t-shirts because movement is woven throughout the school day. Four mornings a week, the girls take 40-minute movement classes with modules ranging from circuit training to yoga.

“If you ask where the vision is — yeah, we’re working on health and wellness, but all that is for the outcome that people feel truly comfortable as physical beings, ” said the school’s founder Liz Wolfson. “I know I can teach them to love themselves at that point. If they love themselves anything’s possible: good relationships, passion in learning and career choices.”

How many schools do it?

There’s no data that shows how many Colorado schools offer daily physical education, but most experts say the answer is not many. If anything, it appears to be more common in tiny rural districts where small student populations make it possible for one p.e. teacher to receive every class in the gymnasium each day.

Physical activity minutes related to policy changes

  • Requiring daily P.E.: 23 minutes
  • Providing classroom physical activity breaks: 19 minutes
  • Increasing walking or bicycling to school: 16 minutes
  • Renovating parks to include more equipment and opportunities for activity: 12 minutes
  • Increasing after-school physical activity programs: 10 minutes
  • Standardizing P.E. curricula to increase active time and decrease inactive time: 6 minutes more than traditional P.E.
  • Modifying school playgrounds: 6 minutes
  • Modifying recess to provide more play equipment that encourages physical activity: 5 minutes more than traditional recess
  • Increasing park access: 1 minute

In some cases, few other “specials” or elective classes are available because of budget cuts or the scarcity of specialty teachers. In Las Animas, where kindergarteners through ninth-graders get between 25 and 55 minutes of daily p.e., the music program is gone, as are health classes, wood shop and other electives.

“We’ve hung on to two electives essentially,” said Carl Lindauer, the district’s athletic director and the p.e. teacher for grades 7-12. “When it boils right down to it…it’s easier to get p.e. teachers than music teachers in rural Colorado.”

Sue Brittenham, who manages a Colorado Health Foundation grant to improve physical education in 43 rural districts in the state, found that only about 11 elementary schools in the group offer daily p.e. for all grades, though several have school only four days a week. About two dozen middle and high schools in the group also offer daily p.e., but very few require it in more than one or two grades.

Nationally, the number of schools that offer daily p.e. appears similarly low. A 2006 study in the Journal of School Health found that 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools and 2 percent of high schools had daily p.e.

Aside from a lack of facility space or funding, Brittenham said another barrier to more p.e. is the push to raise student achievement.

“They think if kids are in their classrooms more their scores are going to go up and it’s just the opposite,” she said.

Like many advocates for school-based physical activity, Sorte doesn’t believe p.e. and traditional classroom instruction are competing interests.

“[I’m] not seeing it as a tradeoff but really seeing physical education as a way to continue academic growth.”

The logistics of daily p.e

While some rural schools have offered daily p.e. for years, those that have added it more recently say it may take scheduling or funding tweaks, but it’s doable.

“You’ve got to have administrative support…They have to be willing to change the schedule. They have to be willing to say, ‘Yeah, we need this, so we need those extra funds,’” said Kristin Quere. “The entire school has to be bought into why it is important for these kids.”

Quere, who used to rotate between two schools before B.F. Kitchen added daily p.e., said part of her salary is now paid using Title 1 funds. In addition, to ensure all kids get p.e. on Wednesday, the district’s early release day, she takes two classes at a time with the help of a paraprofessional.

Students at GALS in Denver participate in a 40-minute yoga class.
Students at GALS in Denver participate in a 40-minute yoga class.

At some schools, particularly mission-based charter schools, p.e. is a foundational part of the program and administrators never imagined opening their schools without it. That’s the case at Academy 360 and GALS.

Not that it’s always easy. Academy 360 is currently leasing space in a church and has no gymnasium. The p.e. teacher there, who pairs the Spark curriculum with state p.e. standards, either runs the classes in an empty classroom or takes the children outside.

The school also doesn’t offer stand-alone art or music classes. Instead, teachers try to incorporate those subjects into classroom projects, or students have the option to join a low-cost after-school drum circle run by a local non-profit.

Brittenham said the wide disparity in how much physical education schools offer—from daily classes to one per week, can make it difficult for some p.e. teachers to cover the state’s physical education standards and the associated benchmarks.

According to data she’s collected on the 43 districts involved in her grant, elementary schools offer a range from 53 to 124 minutes of p.e. per week, while middle schools offer 82 to 194 minutes, and high schools offer between 81 and 205 minutes.

“How effective can I be compared to a teacher who sees their kids twice as much as I do?” she said.

All daily p.e. not created equal

Experts caution that daily p.e. doesn’t automatically mean high-quality programming that builds students’ skills and self-esteem using an evidence-based curriculum.

“Sometimes, it’s a cover-up for sports practice,” said Elaine Belansky, associate director of the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center at the University of Colorado.

In cases where p.e. is not well-executed and caters to only a select group of student athletes, it can have the unintended effect of making exercise a turn-off for some students, she said. If that happens on a daily basis, it can actually be more harmful than once- or twice-a-week p.e.

Daily p.e. can also be a disaster if it’s not properly staffed. Brittenham told of a Texas p.e. teacher who was responsible for 100 students during every class because her district had implemented daily p.e. without adding any new teachers.

“They said they really felt like it was glorified recess,” she said.

At Las Animas Middle, which has a p.e. class for kids in school sports and another for those not in sports, Lindhauer said the district is proud to offer the classes daily. He said while urban areas offer lots of community-based options for youth sports and fitness, Las Animas is “sort of like an island.”

“If we don’t provide it through the schools, they don’t get it,” he said.

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.

Battle of the Bands

How one group unites, provides opportunities for Memphis-area musicians

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Mass Band members prepare for Saturday's Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands in Jackson, Mississippi.

A drumline’s cadence filled the corners of Fairley High School’s band room, where 260 band members from across Memphis wrapped up their final practice of the week.

“M-M-B!” the group shouted before lifting their instruments to attention. James Taylor, one of the program’s five directors, signaled one last stand tune before he made his closing remarks.

“It behooves you to be on that bus at that time,” Taylor said to the room of Memphis Mass Band members Thursday night, reminding them to follow his itinerary. Saturday would be a be a big day after all.

That’s when about 260 Memphis Mass Band members will make their way to Jackson, Mississippi, for the event of the season: the Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands. They’ll join mass bands from New Orleans, Detroit, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina to showcase musical performances.

“This is like the Honda of mass bands,” said baritone section leader Marico Ray, referring to the Honda Battle of the Bands, the ultimate competition between bands from historically black colleges and universities

Mass bands are designed to connect young band members to older musicians, many of whom are alumni of college bands and can help them through auditions and scholarship applications.

Created in 2011, Memphis Mass Band is a co-ed organization that’s geared toward unifying middle school, high school, college, and alumni bands across the city. The local group is a product of a merger of a former alumni and all-star band, each then about a decade old.

Ray, who joined what was called the Memphis All Star band in 2001, said the group challenged him in a way that his high school band could not.

“I was taught in high school that band members should be the smartest people, because you have to take in and do so much all at once,” he said, noting that band members have to play, count, read, and keep a tempo at the same time.

But the outside program would put that to the test. Ray laughed as he remembered his first day of practice with other all-star members.

“I was frightened,” he said. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to be how good everybody else was.”

Ray, now 30, credits the group for his mastery of the baritone, for his college degree, and for introducing him to his wife Kamisha. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2006 and joined the local alumni band, he was already well-connected with band directors from surrounding colleges, like Jackson State University, where he took courses in music education. After he married Kamisha, an all-star alumna and fellow baritone player, they both came back to Memphis to join the newly formed Memphis Mass Band.

“This music is very important, but what you do after this is what’s gonna make you better in life,” he said. “The goal is to make everyone as good as possible, and if you’re competing with the next person all the time, you’ll never stop trying to get better.”

In a school district that has seen many school closures and mergers in recent years, Ray said a program like MMB is needed for students who’ve had to bounce between school bands. The band is open-admission, meaning it will train anyone willing to put in the work, without requiring an audition.

“[Relocation] actually hurts a lot of our students and children because that takes their mentality away from anything that they wanted to do, versus them being able to continue going and striving,” Ray said. “Some of them lose opportunities and scholarships, college life and careers, because of a change in atmospheres.”

With its unique mix of members, though, school rivalries are common, and MMB occasionally deals with cross-system spars. But Saturday, the members will put all of that aside.

“What school you went to really doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “Everybody out here is going to wear the same uniform.”

Asia Wilson, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Memphis, heard about the group from a friend. Wilson used to play trumpet in the Overton High School band, but she said coming to MMB this year has introduced her to a different style.

Jorge Pena, a sophomore at Central High School, heard about the group on YouTube. It’s also his first year in the mass band, and the tuba player is now gearing up to play alongside members of different ages, like Wilson.

They’re both ready to show what they’ve learned at the big battle.

“It’s gonna be lit,” Wilson said, smiling.

Need weekend plans? Tickets are still selling for Saturday’s 5 p.m. showcase. To purchase, click here.