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.

Movers & shakers

Former education leaders spearhead new Memphis group to zero in on poverty

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Klondike-Smokey City is the first Memphis neighborhood targeted by Whole Child Strategies to coordinate the fight against poverty.

In a “big small town” like Memphis, neighborhoods are a source of pride and strength for residents in one of the poorest cities in America.

Natalie McKinney

Now, a new Memphis nonprofit organization is seeking to address poverty by coordinating the work of neighborhood schools, businesses, churches, and community groups.

Natalie McKinney is executive director of Whole Child Strategies, created last fall to help neighborhood and community leaders chart their own paths for decreasing poverty, which also would increase student achievement.

“There’s a lot of people ‘collaborating’ but not a lot of coordination toward a shared goal,” said McKinney, a former policy director for Shelby County Schools.

McKinney doesn’t want to “reinvent the wheel” on community development. However, she does want to provide logistical resources for analyzing data, facilitating meetings, and coordinating public advocacy for impoverished Memphis neighborhoods through existing or emerging neighborhood councils.

“Poverty looks different in different areas,” she said, citing varying levels of parent education, transportation, jobs and wages, and access to mental health services. “When we get down and figure out what is really going on and really dealing with the root cause for that particular community, that’s the work that the neighborhood council is doing.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Luther Mercer

Her team includes Luther Mercer, former Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, and Rychetta Watkins, who recently led the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South, along with Courtney Thomas, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Tenice Hardaway.

Whole Child Strategies is supported by an anonymous donor and also plans to raise more funds, according to McKinney.

The first neighborhood to receive a grant from the nonprofit is Klondike-Smokey City, which includes a mix of schools run by both Shelby County Schools and Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The group is drilling down to find out why students in those schools are missing school days, which will include a look at student suspensions.

At the community level, Whole Child Strategies has canvassed Agape Child & Family Services, Communities in Schools, City Year, Family Safety Center, Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, and Seeding Success for ideas to increase transportation, reduce crime, and provide more mental health services.

For example, Family Safety Center, which serves domestic abuse survivors, now has a presence in schools in the Klondike-Smokey City community. McKinney said that’s the kind of coordination she hopes Whole Child Strategies can foster.

One need that already is apparent is for a community-wide calendar so that meetings do not overlap and organizations can strategize together, said Quincey Morris, executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

“I think like any new thing, you have to crawl first,” Morris said. “And I think the more that the community is informed about the whole child strategy, the more that we involve parents and community residents, I think it will grow.”

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.