Finding room for fitness

The Baltimore Sun

Students at Quarterfield Elementary School get 60 minutes of gym class every week, but it's the physical education teacher and custodian who get the most exercise.

To accommodate six shifts of hungry children who eat in a gym that doubles as a cafeteria, physical education teacher Elizabeth Leventry and custodian Cain Lee have just five minutes to clear the floor of balls and hula hoops and set out 20 tables.

When the last children file out, it's another mad rush to fold up the tables and mop the floor before Leventry's next class arrives.

Leventry said her Anne Arundel County school, already strapped for space, could never fit in more than twice as much gym time every week, as new state legislation proposes.

A lack of gymnasium space is one reason school districts are lobbying against a bill now pending before the General Assembly that would require 150 minutes a week of physical education for elementary school students. Other reasons: the cost of hiring additional gym teachers and the challenge of wedging more jumping jacks and sit-ups into a schedule already bursting with mandated academic lessons.

Opponents also wonder whether it's fair to hold the schools accountable for the astonishing growth in childhood obesity.

While school districts acknowledge alarming increases in children's weight - 20 percent to 30 percent of kids ages 15 and younger are obese, according to the latest research - they and other opponents also say the bill is an unfunded mandate that would cost $48 million over four years. Worse, they say, it doesn't provide a way for schools to squeeze in the additional time.

"Give us the standards, but let us determine the way we meet them," said Stephen Guthrie, assistant superintendent of administration for Carroll County public schools. "If you increase the time for one subject without increasing the school day, then you're taking away from other academics."

The bill is up for a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee tomorrow. A similar bill passed the Senate last year but died in a House committee.

The bill's sponsors say the existing law is too vague. It requires schools to have physical education but doesn't specify how long those classes should be. As a result, some struggling elementary schools in urban areas have as little as 30 minutes of gym a week, opting for more reading time instead, while most suburban school districts offer 60 to 90 minutes a week - still half of what's recommended.

That inequity, the sponsors say, is unacceptable in the face of national data that show the percentage of overweight children has grown from 4 percent in 1971 nearly to 19 percent three years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This is about more than curriculum. It's about health and the larger concerns we're facing with increased heart problems, stroke, juvenile diabetes," said Democratic Del. Jon S. Cardin of Baltimore County, a sponsor of the bill. "I hope it doesn't take until we hit an emergency status with the physical health of our students before we get the message and take some action."

The legislation, which has a companion bill in the Senate sponsored by Gwendolyn T. Britt, a Prince George's County Democrat, outlines a gradual increase in physical education instruction over four years to a minimum of 150 minutes a week by the 2011-2012 school year. That would bring Maryland schools in line with national guidelines for physical activity in elementary schools.

Other state legislatures have also taken up the cause, churning out a bevy of student health bills. Last month, Washington state proposed providing K-12 students with an hour a day of physical activity after school districts reduced time in gym class and recess to improve scores on state tests.

South Carolina lawmakers -concerned that the number of overweight children in the state has tripled since the 1960s -have passed a law similar to the one being proposed in Maryland. The law also seeks to reduce student-gym teacher ratios from 700-1 to 500-1.

While most states' bills have focused on schools' role in reducing child obesity, a study to be published in the April issue of the American Journal of Public Health found that 5- and 6-year-olds gained more weight over the summer than during the school year, suggesting that schools might be doing a better job than parents of keeping children fit.

During the summer, children's monthly body mass index, a ratio of weight to height, grew three times as large as it did during the school year. Doug Downey, an Ohio State University sociologist and co-author of the study, said the data show that gaps between normal and overweight children grow fastest when school is not in session.

"The primary public dialogue when it comes to childhood obesity has come down to school policies: Can we improve school lunches, get the soda machines out of school? Those efforts aren't in vain, but our study suggests that the main source of [the] problem lies outside of school," Downey said.

Along with raising questions about who is responsible for curbing kids' obesity, the bill has prompted talk of lengthening the school day. A state organization that represents school boards says it will form a task force to study the possibility, which comes with a host of barriers, including "the gargantuan task" of renegotiating agreements with unions, one official said.

"The General Assembly clearly wants local school districts to do more," said John R. Woolums, director of government relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. "We want to hear from superintendents and facilities people and the physical education teachers about what would it be like if this bill passed. What would it take for districts to pull this off? How can we creatively extend the school day, and how could we amend our negotiations with bargaining groups? We've got 24 of those. It's never easy and not always pretty amending those" contracts.

Already scrambling to carve out time for intensive reading and math lessons to meet more stringent state and federal performance standards, school officials say that unless the school day is lengthened, offering more gym would take away from subjects such as social studies, arts and music.

"It's all about having well-rounded children," said Mary Jo Neil, president of the Maryland PTA and a parent of Howard County schoolchildren. "They should be getting everything: arts and physical activity and reading. This bill doesn't really give schools a way to fit everything in."

The Maryland PTA and MABE say the bill would require schools to hire hundreds more gym teachers.

Many schools would have to squeeze two and three classes into each period to meet the proposed minimum requirements. The multipurpose rooms that many schools have can barely fit one class.

At Quarterfield, Leventry routinely finds her class displaced by parent meetings or award assemblies. She scouts out empty classrooms or broad hallways to hold her class during those times. She adapts her lesson to the sometimes tight spaces she finds.

The other day, when a "Muffins for Moms" gathering squeezed her out of the gym, she found an empty classroom and taught her students about rhythm and had a scarf-juggling contest - safe activities for small spots.

"It's all about working with what you have," she said of the improvisation. "They learned about hand-eye coordination that day."

Leventry smiled and went back to the cafeteria to survey the space that had been a gym five minutes earlier. A line of fifth-graders waited in the hall to enter. She asked a boy in line, "Are you hungry?" and donned her second hat as lunchroom monitor.

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