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Local school jumps ahead with daily exercise

MANATEE — Students at Manatee School for the Arts were skeptical of their school’s new physical education policy.

Was the 30-minute daily walk a joke, especially in the Florida heat?

But halfway into the school year, the secondary school students are changing their tune.

“I love it, it’s such a great break during the day,” said Kim Stevens, 15.

The charter school is taking an unusual step to jump-start a state mandate that requires mandatory PE for middle school students beginning next school year.

State lawmakers passed the legislation this year calling for 150 minutes a week of PE for middle-schoolers. It also tightened the language of the law for elementary school students to require 30 minutes of consecutive activity during a PE class.

Backed by Gov. Charlie Crist, the legislation was a move to bring physical education back to schools.

Since the federal No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2002, coupled with a rising concern over obesity among children, many proponents of physical education decried the axing of PE programs across the country.

Those proponents, including the American Heart Association, claimed that PE has been put on a back burner over the years because of pressure to increase test scores and budget constraints.

Experts say roughly 30 minutes of PE a day is good for students; studies revealed that such courses improved academic performance.

While they understand the argument for physical education classes, local elementary school principals were not too hot about the new law. Middle school administrators, however, see the break in the middle of the school day as a great way for students to let off steam.

Break grows on students

At the 1:15 p.m. bell at Manatee School for the Arts, students poured out of their classrooms and headed for the school’s parking lot to start their 30-minute walk.

Since school started in August, MSA administrators made all their 1,150 middle and high schoolers circle the campus to try out the new law.

The teachers and administrators were skeptical about it at first, too, said Terence Devine, MSA’s assistant principal.

“We’re not sure how it works, or how to sell the benefits to them (the students),” he said.

The trickiest part was to work the extra session into the school day, he said. So administrators shaved five minutes off each period to cobble together a period for PE. If it rains, students are kept inside and an extra instructional period is added.

Students did not initially take to the idea.

“It’s so hot,” said Bradley Gilmore, 17.

“I didn’t like it because it was a weird break during the day,” said his classmate, Kim.

They do now.

“It gives you a chance to unwind,” said Jenna Mathis, 16.

“I get more energy during the day,” said Matt Quick, 16.

Teachers also noted a difference in the students since the mandatory walks.

“It lets them get out to talk to their friends about the important things that have built up inside all day,” said Guy Germanio, an English teacher who also participates in the walks. “They get some exercise and come back to class focused.”

Devine agrees.

“I think I see the benefit of it for every child,” he said. “Kids don’t get enough physical education every day.”

Other middle schools in Manatee County already meet the new law’s physical activity requirements, said Angela Essig, the school district’s director of secondary schools.

All the traditional middle schools already offer at least one PE class a semester, she said. And some schools, such as King Middle, offer a comprehensive and popular PE program that includes gym, ping pong and archery courses.

The only change that comes with the new law is students would have to get their parents to sign waivers if they do not want to take PE, she said.

Exercise has its benefits

Proponents of physical education will have lots of numbers to share about the benefits of exercise.

The American Heart Association reports that 10 million children between ages 6 and 19 are considered overweight. By 2010, federal officials estimate that 20 percent of the youth in the United States will be obese. These children will have a greater risk of developing and dying from coronary heart disease as adults.

Schools, argues the Active Living Research program in California, are crucial places for children to engage in physical activities and to learn about health and fitness. And PE improves grades and classroom behavior, the program found in a report released in 2007.

“All of us believe we want fit kids,” said Wendy Herrera, principal of Orange Ridge/Bullock Elementary. “Times are different. We used to go outside and play, but children don’t do that anymore.”

Law comes without funding

But principals such as Herrera would be more supportive of the law if it didn’t take a toll on the already-packed schedule for elementary school students and teachers.

Rowlett Elementary Principal Brian Flynn said he had to hire additional staff to make PE work at his school.

Legislators made an unwise call requiring schools to have 30 minutes of physical activity each day “without funding, and without knowledge of how elementary school works or what impact it has,” Flynn said. “It was very, very challenging.”

For elementary and middle schools, the state PE law allows recess or unstructured play time to be counted as PE. As a performing arts and communications magnet school, Flynn was able to count drama, dance classes and recess as physical education.

But at Orange Ridge/Bullock Elementary, the mandatory 30 minutes a day caused some lost instruction time, Herrera said. PE is usually the first to go if an important assembly or schoolwide activity comes up.

Both Herrera and Flynn said they did not see PE adding notable benefits for their students.

But Herrera said more students are coming to the school clinic with heat-related illnesses when it’s hot and humid out, she said.

Exercising in school isn’t the only key to children’s weight problems and those solutions can’t be mandated, Herrera said.

“It’s an overall lifestyle change can’t fix it by 30 minutes of PE every day,” she said. “It helps, but parents need to be educated on what they feed their children.”