Tucked away in cities like Denver and Loveland or rural communities like Las Animas and Haxtun, you will find schools where students get physical education daily. In a state that doesn’t require p.e. at all and where many students get it just a couple times a week, these schools are anomalies.
There’s Academy 360, a new charter school in Far Northeast Denver, that offers 45 minutes of p.e. a day as part its mission to educate the whole child. There’s B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland, which added 30 minutes of daily p.e. back in 2008 when declining enrollment prompted it to adopt a health and wellness focus. There’s Las Animas Middle School, located in southeast Colorado, which provides 55 minute of p.e. during all four days of its school week in part because most other electives have been cut.
While experts warn that not all daily p.e. is high quality, there is evidence that generally such offerings represent one of the highest-impact changes schools can make to help students move more. A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that instituting daily physical education classes for children boosts moderate to vigorous physical activity by 23 minutes a day, a higher number of minutes that any other policy evaluated.
Despite federal recommendations that children ages 6 to 17 get an hour of physical activity a day, only 49 percent of Colorado children ages 5 to 14 reached that threshold, according to 2011 data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Nationally, the numbers are similar, which is part of the reason the Chicago board of education voted last month to roll out daily p.e. for all students over the next three years. Although the Illinois School Code requires daily p.e., Chicago Public Schools has had a waiver exempting it from the requirement.
While the health advantages of physical education, and physical activity in general, are widely accepted, many educators say its purpose in schools goes much deeper. Citing brain research by John Ratey and John Medina, they say daily physical activity is a way to optimize student achievement.
“It’s really in the service of learning,” said Sally Sorte, principal of Academy 360, which also provides 15 minutes of morning movement and a 15-minute recess. “You see the benefits back in the classroom. Students are more calm. Their attention is better.”
Kristin Quere, the p.e. teacher at B.F. Kitchen, said, “If we want to provide our kids the optimal learning environment, and movement is a way to do that…we’re kind of missing the boat if we’re not providing that.”
At the Girls Athletic Leadership School, a charter middle school in central Denver, the dress code includes sneakers, exercise pants and t-shirts because movement is woven throughout the school day. Four mornings a week, the girls take 40-minute movement classes with modules ranging from circuit training to yoga.
“If you ask where the vision is — yeah, we’re working on health and wellness, but all that is for the outcome that people feel truly comfortable as physical beings, ” said the school’s founder Liz Wolfson. “I know I can teach them to love themselves at that point. If they love themselves anything’s possible: good relationships, passion in learning and career choices.”
How many schools do it?
There’s no data that shows how many Colorado schools offer daily physical education, but most experts say the answer is not many. If anything, it appears to be more common in tiny rural districts where small student populations make it possible for one p.e. teacher to receive every class in the gymnasium each day.
In some cases, few other “specials” or elective classes are available because of budget cuts or the scarcity of specialty teachers. In Las Animas, where kindergarteners through ninth-graders get between 25 and 55 minutes of daily p.e., the music program is gone, as are health classes, wood shop and other electives.
“We’ve hung on to two electives essentially,” said Carl Lindauer, the district’s athletic director and the p.e. teacher for grades 7-12. “When it boils right down to it…it’s easier to get p.e. teachers than music teachers in rural Colorado.”
Sue Brittenham, who manages a Colorado Health Foundation grant to improve physical education in 43 rural districts in the state, found that only about 11 elementary schools in the group offer daily p.e. for all grades, though several have school only four days a week. About two dozen middle and high schools in the group also offer daily p.e., but very few require it in more than one or two grades.
Nationally, the number of schools that offer daily p.e. appears similarly low. A 2006 study in the Journal of School Health found that 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools and 2 percent of high schools had daily p.e.
Aside from a lack of facility space or funding, Brittenham said another barrier to more p.e. is the push to raise student achievement.
“They think if kids are in their classrooms more their scores are going to go up and it’s just the opposite,” she said.
Like many advocates for school-based physical activity, Sorte doesn’t believe p.e. and traditional classroom instruction are competing interests.
“[I’m] not seeing it as a tradeoff but really seeing physical education as a way to continue academic growth.”
The logistics of daily p.e
While some rural schools have offered daily p.e. for years, those that have added it more recently say it may take scheduling or funding tweaks, but it’s doable.
“You’ve got to have administrative support…They have to be willing to change the schedule. They have to be willing to say, ‘Yeah, we need this, so we need those extra funds,’” said Kristin Quere. “The entire school has to be bought into why it is important for these kids.”
Quere, who used to rotate between two schools before B.F. Kitchen added daily p.e., said part of her salary is now paid using Title 1 funds. In addition, to ensure all kids get p.e. on Wednesday, the district’s early release day, she takes two classes at a time with the help of a paraprofessional.
At some schools, particularly mission-based charter schools, p.e. is a foundational part of the program and administrators never imagined opening their schools without it. That’s the case at Academy 360 and GALS.
Not that it’s always easy. Academy 360 is currently leasing space in a church and has no gymnasium. The p.e. teacher there, who pairs the Spark curriculum with state p.e. standards, either runs the classes in an empty classroom or takes the children outside.
The school also doesn’t offer stand-alone art or music classes. Instead, teachers try to incorporate those subjects into classroom projects, or students have the option to join a low-cost after-school drum circle run by a local non-profit.
Brittenham said the wide disparity in how much physical education schools offer—from daily classes to one per week, can make it difficult for some p.e. teachers to cover the state’s physical education standards and the associated benchmarks.
According to data she’s collected on the 43 districts involved in her grant, elementary schools offer a range from 53 to 124 minutes of p.e. per week, while middle schools offer 82 to 194 minutes, and high schools offer between 81 and 205 minutes.
“How effective can I be compared to a teacher who sees their kids twice as much as I do?” she said.
All daily p.e. not created equal
Experts caution that daily p.e. doesn’t automatically mean high-quality programming that builds students’ skills and self-esteem using an evidence-based curriculum.
“Sometimes, it’s a cover-up for sports practice,” said Elaine Belansky, associate director of the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center at the University of Colorado.
In cases where p.e. is not well-executed and caters to only a select group of student athletes, it can have the unintended effect of making exercise a turn-off for some students, she said. If that happens on a daily basis, it can actually be more harmful than once- or twice-a-week p.e.
Daily p.e. can also be a disaster if it’s not properly staffed. Brittenham told of a Texas p.e. teacher who was responsible for 100 students during every class because her district had implemented daily p.e. without adding any new teachers.
“They said they really felt like it was glorified recess,” she said.
At Las Animas Middle, which has a p.e. class for kids in school sports and another for those not in sports, Lindhauer said the district is proud to offer the classes daily. He said while urban areas offer lots of community-based options for youth sports and fitness, Las Animas is “sort of like an island.”
“If we don’t provide it through the schools, they don’t get it,” he said.