Physical education is no game in Howard County

Anna Spring remembers the resources that were poured into combating teen smoking and pregnancy. The retired Howard County physical education teacher said she hasn't seen the same response to address childhood obesity.

"We have all this research that says a healthier student is a better student, but the policy-makers are still saying we need more math, more science," said Spring, who taught in county schools for 33 years. "But you turn on the news every night, and what do you hear about? Childhood obesity."

Howard County students spend hours learning skills and subjects that will prepare them for the rest of their lives, such as reading, math, history and science. But some, like Spring, are concerned that one subject they believe is crucial to the implementation of all the others is not getting enough attention: physical education.

"We always want kids to do well in school and on tests, but we have a hard time looking at physical activity," said Spring, who has served as president of the Maryland Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. "We put Band-aids on the problem. We have to start looking at quality physical education and giving educators the time to do it."

The lack of time is the most frustrating aspect for physical education teachers, Spring said. Currently, elementary students receive 90 minutes of physical education a week, middle school students get either 100 or 150, and high school students get 250 minutes for one semester — all less than the time suggested for healthy schools by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

In fact, high school students are required only to take one semester of physical education during their entire four-year career. Mt. Hebron High School wrestling coach and physical education teacher Todd DeCrispino said a half-year of physical education is "absolutely not enough.

"This is the last opportunity we have to teach them the importance of being physically fit," he said. "To limit it to one semester, usually in their freshman year, is tragic. It doesn't set the example for them that fitness is just as important as high intelligence."

The Board of Education is considering revisions to the school system's health and wellness policy that critics say fall short in many areas. However, none of the revisions being proposed call for an increase in physical education instruction.

The board has scheduled a work session on the policy for Thursday, May 9, following concerns board members and the public had on the revisions. At a public hearing last month, dozens turned out to say the policy doesn't do enough to cut unhealthy food from cafeteria offerings or provide enough time for physical activity.

"Physical education is a building block, and physical activity is an outcome of physical education," said Jackie French, an instruction facilitator in the Howard County Public School System's department of physical education. "It's just like reading — the outcome of a quality reading program is a student learning to read and reading on their own. Physical activity isn't the responsibility of the school, but a quality physical education program that encourages physical activity is."

French was a member of the committee tasked to revise the current health and wellness policy. The committee was asked to create a world-class policy, and members put forth world-class recommendations, she said. But those recommendations, which included increasing the physical education instruction time to best practice standards by 2017, did not make it to the final proposal presented by Superintendent Renee Foose and central office staff.

Still, French said, the proposed policy changes include improvements from what's being done in county schools, and "I think we could easily make some additional improvements without a lot of costs," she said.

Right now, elementary students in the county get 90 minutes of physical education class a week — three 30-minute class periods — but best practices from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education suggest 150 minutes. Those 90 minutes are "a blessing" compared to other Maryland districts, said Joani Morrison, a physical education teacher at Bellows Spring Elementary School in Ellicott City. But it is not enough, she said.

"You're always in 'giddy-up' mode, you have to go, go, go," she said. "We're required to teach to standards, too, and we're trying to get more content into that short amount of time and it's difficult."

Physical education teachers have to teach to standards in the same way reading and math teachers must, French said. For example, by the end of fifth grade a student should be able to throw an object overhand with competency, and they must possess the skill and knowledge to participate in a game with their classmates.

"Now, it's about how can we at least teach a game so they can be a part of it, enjoy it and remain motivated to do it," said French, who also is on the committee tasked to revise the health and wellness policy.

In middle school, changes to the program of studies last year meant that students receive 50-minute physical education classes every other day. That means Michael Draminski, a physical education teacher at Dunloggin Middle School in Ellicott City, sees his students either 100 minutes a week or 150 minutes a week. While best practices suggest middle school students receive 225 minutes of physical education a week, Draminski said his class schedule affords a better opportunity for instruction and activity than what exists in elementary schools.

"That gives us a chance to create a program that has consistency, progression and a way for kids to excel," he said. "It's not as hodgepodge, and it's a good opportunity to shape children for a lifetime."

The one semester requirement for high school students during their four years boils down to half a required credit (the other semester is spent in a health class), and the class is 50 minutes long. Like students at the middle school level, high school students should be getting 225 minutes of physical education a week.

Howard County high school students, on paper, receive 250 minutes a week. However, although the students have his class every day, DeCrispino, the Mt. Hebron teacher, said he loses valuable minutes — as many as 15 — as students change in the locker room before and after class.

Even in the required class, DeCrispino said he sees students struggle with basic assignments, like playing team sports or running laps. Various physical education classes are available as electives, but DeCrispino said the students who usually take them are athletes — students who already are getting ample physical activity — rather than the students who might need the exercise most.

"A lot of kids are being torn in two different directions," he said. "A lot of time, students who do want to continue in physical education classes have to focus on getting into college and taking Advanced Placement courses. They want what looks good on a transcript. That's a shame."

Many repeated Morrison's sentiment that the amount of physical education in Howard County schools — and the resources given to teachers — are a blessing. The school system, too, receives accolades for its programs that encourage healthier lifestyles; last month, the local nonprofit Healthy Howard designated 56 schools — including 52 public schools — as healthy schools.

Howard does allot more time for physical education in elementary and middle school than neighboring districts, as well. Baltimore County, for example, requires elementary students receive physical education for 50 minutes a week, middle school students 50 minutes every other day, and high school students 50 minutes every other day for one year, according to school officials. In Montgomery County, school officials said elementary students receive 35-50 minutes of physical education a week. In middle school, students receive three quarters of physical education with 45-minute classes daily or every-other-day depending on their schedule. Montgomery high school students are required to take one year of 45- or 55-minute classes of physical education.

"We're so much more fortunate than most," Spring said. "But we should be a leader. We always tout our high academic scores, but we should be a leader in physical education, too."

Meanwhile, physical education teachers must battle cultural and societal changes in keeping students as healthy as possible.

"You know, this population of school-aged children is less likely to live longer than their parents," Morrison said. "That's powerful."

In discussing the importance of physical fitness, a consistent theme rang out among teachers: It doesn't matter how smart a student is if they're not healthy enough to take advantage of it.

"They're not going to be healthy and they're not going to feel good," DeCrispino said. "When you're physically fit, you're going to achieve better on tests and in the classroom. From the physiological standpoint, the stronger your heart is, the more oxygen is being delivered to your brain. It's difficult, being a physical education teacher and knowing that being fit is just as important as excelling in academics. These things should go hand in hand."

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