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Denver’s SPARK program gets kids moving

The minute the fourth graders walked into the gym at Denver’s Force Elementary School, P.E. teacher Deborah Ellis had them moving. And for the next 45 minutes, no one stood still for more than a minute or so.

While a group of three or four children climbed ropes, another small group worked on the balance beam, another group worked on a climbing wall, another rolled around on a tumbling mat, and others were jumping rope. Every few minutes, the groups would trade places, with the rock climbers moving on to the balance beam, the rope climbers moving on to the tumbling mat, and so forth. But between each shift, Ellis turned on the music and every student did a minute of cardio-pumping dance moves or exercise routines.

“Our whole emphasis is that in a 45-minute period, students should be active at least 50 percent of the time – and in this class I’d say it’s at least 75 percent of the time,” said Eric Larson, director of physical education for DPS, as he watched Ellis put the youngsters through their paces. “We really stay away from something like five-on-five basketball, where 10 kids are playing and the rest are on the sidelines watching and rotating in. Instead, we do things that are one-on-one or two-on-two or three-on three. There’s a lot of touching the ball or working on skills. We want them all active.”

As schools struggle to find new and innovative ways to combat the childhood obesity epidemic, few programs have yielded the kind of proven results needed to replicate them on a mass scale. However, there are some programs right here in the metro area that look promising. EdNews Parent and Education News Colorado are examining these programs and the childhood obesity epidemic in general in a short series that began Thursday. Today, we examine SPARK.

Last year, Force Elementary School was one of the first elementary schools in DPS to move to a new PE curriculum called SPARK. This year, the curriculum is in 58 DPS elementary schools, and will be in the remaining 30 next year. It was introduced into DPS middle schools in 2004.

Excellent model, but equipment is costly

The SPARK curriculum isn’t new. It’s been around for 22 years. In 1989, a team of researchers got funding from the National Institutes of Health to create and evaluate a PE program that could become a national model. The acronym stands for Select fruits and vegetables, Play actively, Avoid excess sugar and fat, Reduce TV/media time, Keep H2O the way to go.

Today, SPARK has research-based physical activity programs for not only school physical education classes but also for early childhood, after-school and coordinated school health programs. It’s been honored as exemplary by everyone from the Surgeon General to the U.S. Department of Education to the Centers for Disease Control. A 2009 survey of anti-obesity programs, conducted by the HSC Foundation, lauded SPARK as one of the best physical education models available.

But it’s not inexpensive. Keeping children constantly active requires lots of equipment – enough so that every child has ready use of a ball or a hoop or whatever fitness gear is required for a given lesson. Stocking the suggested equipment for an elementary school runs between $5,000 and $9,000 per school, and can top $14,000 for a middle school. And Ellis – the P.E. teacher at Force for the past 19 years – has an equipment budget of just $300 a year.

A $450,000  three-year federal grant allowed DPS to put the SPARK curriculum – and the required equipment – into every school. In addition to seven days of intensive training in the curriculum, Ellis and her fellow DPS elementary PE teachers each got $7,000 worth of equipment.

“I had already accumulated a lot of equipment on my own through the years, but when I got all this SPARK equipment, it was like I’d died and gone to heaven,” said Ellis.

Middle schoolers showed marked fitness improvements

The district is in the process of measuring the impact of the SPARK curriculum on its elementary students’ fitness levels. Results of cardio, flexibility and strength tests conducted before the students began the program and again after several months exposure to it won’t be available until spring. But if the elementary students respond like the middle school students did, Larson is expecting noticeable improvements.

When the SPARK curriculum was introduced to DPS middle schools six years ago, students averaged a 17 percent increase in their aerobic fitness, a 13 percent boost in upper-body strength and a 5 percent increase in flexibility.

Just as importantly, the time the students spent being physically active during PE class zoomed from 29 percent to 66 percent. And after the teachers were trained using the SPARK methods, the percentage who encouraged their students to be physically active outside of school went from three out of 11 to all 11 – or 100 percent.

Will the increased physical activity time in PE class translate into leaner, fitter students over time?

“It’s tough to correlate that,” Larson acknowledges. “There are some national studies that have drawn correlations between fitness levels and academic performance, but no one has come up with a measure to show whether kids’ BMIs (body mass index) are lower because of increased moderate to physical activity. There are just so many factors that come into play.”

Read the first story in this series on Aurora’s Go, Slow, Whoa! program, which uses creative ways to get kids to make better food choices. Read about the fate of workplace wellness strategies in schools and learn about childhood obesity trends in Colorado.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.