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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Is PE an Rx for ABCs?

From left: Anna Shenehon, 9, Nicey Hardin, 9, and Melissa Peck, 9, try out the climbing wall during a physical education class at Meadowbrook Elementary. Meadowbrook is one of several schools in the metro area seeking to improve academic performance through increased physical activity.

In the struggle to teach students to read, Jack Olwell may seem an unlikely role model. He's a teacher, yes, but his subject?

Physical education.

Yet Olwell has drawn praise for his efforts to boost test scores at North Trail Elementary in Farmington. A program he started has taken students behind in reading or math and put them in the gym the first thing in the morning, right before they head to classes in those subjects.

The idea is that exercise helps kids learn -- and it's not just Olwell who believes this. A growing body of research links physical activity and academic performance, according to a report released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That's why Olwell had students racing around the gym before math lessons this winter, why third-graders did jumping-jack exercises on stability balls during a break this week in Golden Valley, and why kids at a St. Paul school ran twice a day during testing in April.

The report is ammo for PE teachers who have long fought the notion that their classes are expendable. Despite campaigns against childhood obesity, many schools have cut back on gym time because of tight budgets, competition from other subjects or pressure to prepare for high-stakes tests.

"Some schools have reduced the time required for physical education in the mistaken belief that having children spend more time in the classroom and less time in the gym will lead to improved scores on standardized tests," said Mary Thissen-Milder of the Minnesota Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

In fact, the CDC's review of 50 studies found "substantial evidence" that physical activity can help with academics. Maintaining or adding time for PE does not appear to hurt -- and may help.

Meadowbrook Elementary in Golden Valley is also trying to apply the lessons of such research. There, kids get regular "brain breaks" to stretch or run around outside. In some classes, they sit on stability balls instead of chairs, punctuating their work with an occasional bounce.

On Monday, fourth-graders in the gym rushed to the climbing wall when they weren't counting push-ups or being weighed as part of fitness assessments.

Last fall, the school doubled the time that fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders spent in PE. But that plan hit a snag: Classroom teachers found they could no longer cram in all the other lessons they needed to teach. Midway into the year, the older students went back to having PE twice a week, while the fourth-graders dropped from four to three 30-minute sessions.

The school's teachers all know that PE is important, "but they just couldn't fit in all of the things they needed to be teaching," said principal Greta Evans-Becker. "On the other hand, when [students] have the extra phy-ed time, you don't need to spend as much time getting them to focus on what they're doing" in class.

'Desperate measures'

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends 150 minutes per week of physical education for elementary students, and 225 for older ones.

In Minnesota, the PE time students actually get varies widely, with some schools teaching only a short lesson every other week, Thissen-Milder said.

PE hasn't been a state graduation requirement since 2003, and "since then, the programming has really begun to shift," she said.

Schools still must provide PE every year in grades K-8 and at least once in high school, but how much is a local decision. The consensus is that PE time has decreased, Thissen-Milder said.

Minnesota is one of three states that lack statewide standards for PE, she said, but legislation on the move this spring would change that.

In Farmington, Olwell started Literacy and Math PE classes after the school board made cuts to PE several years ago. "Desperate times call for desperate measures," he said.

Determined to prove "that physical education has academic relevance," he asked his principal if he could do an experiment: He'd take the fifth-graders who were reading below grade level, give them an extra 15 minutes of PE every morning for a few months, and see if he could catch them up.

Olwell wove reading lessons into activities such as tag, sometimes requiring kids to spell words as they played. Then the kids went to regular reading classes.

When the students sat for standardized tests that winter, their gains in reading exceeded both the national and district averages for fifth-graders.

They also outpaced peers reading below grade level at other Farmington schools.

Olwell is quick to add that he can't prove his students improved as a result of the lessons, and said test gains were not as striking -- though still good -- after the Math PE class he taught this winter.

Active all day long

Of course, the gym isn't the only place students can be active. "Physical education is great and needed, but it's another piece of the puzzle," said Cara McNulty, director of the Office of Statewide Health Improvement.

McNulty's office oversees grants aimed to improve Minnesotans' health. Many communities that have gotten funding are spending some of the money on increasing physical activity during the school day.

At Jackson Elementary in St. Paul, students run two-fifths of a mile every day, said principal Patrick Bryan. It's part of a fight against childhood obesity and diabetes, but he also believes the extra activity shows on state tests. During testing in April, the kids run twice a day.

"We know that all of our kids are better focused, better attuned and better able to sustain their concentration for the duration of these long tests in reading and math," he said.

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