First Person

Are We Failing Gym Or Is Gym Failing Us?

Travis Dove and Juliana Zaloom are students at CSI High School for International Studies. They reported and wrote this piece for their journalism class.

Physical education. The term conjures up images of running, basketball, volleyball, and stretching — and, for many students at CSI High School for International Studies, overcrowding, minimal curriculum, and disorganization. As CSI fills to the ceiling of its capacity, the question of what to do with gym class looms over everyone’s heads.

Originally, because classes lasted up to 55 minutes per day, the school offered gym at 1.35 credits for students (as well as all other classes). This allowed students to finish the required four credits in three semesters. However, after a Department of Education audit found this practice to be against regulations, gym was reduced to one credit per class. After two years, another audit revealed that gym is meant to be worth .58 credits and offered for a minimum of seven semesters. Because of this sudden change, some seniors’ graduation was in doubt, and zero block gym was created in September 2011. The class would be worth one credit to allow seniors to finish in time to graduate.

In addition to being offered to seniors behind in gym credits, some juniors behind in credits (due to taking extra music or art classes) were also placed in zero block. In some cases, students were scheduled for gym more than one period a day so they could make up missed credits.

After a semester of zero block and a period of gym, most seniors and some juniors caught up with the minimum number of credits required to be on track for graduation. But at the beginning of the second semester, these students were left in gym class because scheduling had not been completed. As the school has a 30-day grace period at the start of a semester to sort out any irregularities or incorrect schedules, the students were going to be taken out of zero block by the end of February, but by request this process was sped up.

Being taken out of the class one week into the semester angered some juniors, as they would now have to take gym for the rest of the year and all of next year instead of finishing this year.

“It got me mad that I never failed a class and CSI didn’t put me in what I needed. The least they could have done was keep me in the class so I could make up time they made me waste sophomore year in music class when I didn’t need it three semesters in a row,” said junior Yurany Salazar.

But the zero period block violated state rules. According to the New York State Education Department, unless student are deficient in credits, they may not double up or accelerate in gym to finish their four credits early, though they may use extra gym classes to earn elective credits. Since the juniors were caught up, if they were left in the class and another audit revealed this, they could have been taken out sometime during the semester or even have the gym credit removed from their transcript a year after they took the class.

CSI is also offering another special gym class, after-school freshmen gym on Wednesdays. This class was created to alleviate overcrowding in other gym classes (the maximum ratio for a gym class is 50 students to one certified teacher). The Wednesday class is 135 minutes long.

But the minimum amount of gym per week is 180 minutes, according to the New York City Department of Education. In addition, gym may only be scheduled daily, or three days per week in one semester and two in another. On top of this, gym may be substituted for extra class or out-of-school times, but only for grades 10-12.

What does this information tell us? According to the city, the freshmen gym class is in violation of the Chancellor’s Regulations about physical education. The State Education Department states that gym must be a minimum of 120 minutes weekly per semester, leaving the freshmen gym in the clear. But the state also requires gym for eight semesters instead of New York City’s seven, so in cases like this the city’s regulations might take precedence.

The physical education scheduling conflicts could be due to mistakes by school administration and faculty. Regrettably, Principal Joseph Canale, guidance counselor Marie Pastena, and gym teacher Carmela Pepe declined to comment for this story.

But the city Department of Education can also be blamed for its unclear handling of physical education. As it does not monitor schools’ physical education programs, some have not even been aware that there are requirements at all.

Organizing information about gym is just as difficult as regulating the class, as there are multiple differences between the state’s and the city’s requirements, like the minimum time required (120 vs. 180 minutes per week, and seven vs. eight semesters required).

“The 180-minute-per-week program is a special allowance for NYCDOE and allows students to earn all of their physical education credit in seven semesters as opposed to 8 which is the standard NYS graduation requirement,” said Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the NYCDOE.

While the differences between the city’s and state’s websites make the entire process confusing for students and parents interested in learning about physical education requirements, the labyrinth-like sites make it difficult to locate even that information. The rule about double gym is in an FAQ not directly linked to on NYSED’s website; instead, it can only be found through a direct search for key words. If one doesn’t know what the answer is, he or she is unlikely to find it online. The same holds true for the minimum time requirements for the state, and the 180-minute requirement from the city is found in a document in the Department of School Wellness and not the section for physical education.

So perhaps the reason that CSI has a dizzying gym standard and schedule and that other schools are not even aware of gym requirements is that they are nearly impossible to find. If all information were compiled on a single page that could be found upon searching for gym requirements, New York State’s and City’s physical education regulations would be easily enforced. For the first time this year, the city compiled a 40-page guide collecting all of the disparate graduation requirements in all subjects, but even that is not sufficiently user-friendly for students and schools.

The final problem with physical education at CSI and in the city and state is the curriculum. In fact, what is the curriculum? The NYCDOE’s website,, does not have a curriculum; instead, it links to NYSED’s, which is actually a set of broad guidelines for gym, broken into three standards. The first standard is titled personal health and fitness, the second  is  a safe and healthy environment, and the last is resource management. In short, the state wants us to perform basic motor skills, have correct social behavior and be aware of unsafe conditions, and learn about gyms outside of school and possible careers in physical education.

Michael Morrissey, a communications associate in the city chancellor’s office, explained that the city endorses a “health-related fitness education curriculum” called Physical Best but that principals are responsible for choosing the physical education curricula for their schools.

Physical Best “focuses on aerobic activity, muscular strength, endurance, flexibility, and body composition,” Morrisy said. “This curriculum differs from ‘traditional’ physical education, in that, rather than learn sport skills without the context or rationale for participating in physical activity, Physical Best enables students to learn why activity is important, and how it benefits them today and for a lifetime.”

How do these standards translate into the sports we play, such as volleyball and basketball? When our teachers attempt to create organized lessons about bumping and shooting, they are usually drowned out by the sheer overpopulation of the relatively small gym and the rowdy middle school and high school that share our building. In fact, sometimes our classes are composed of students sitting in bleachers watching other schools play. The auxiliary gyms upstairs allow us to escape the noise that the divider doesn’t alleviate, but they mostly reduce any activities to simple exercises and stretching and sometimes watching movies, such as “Coach Carter,” that can contain some themes that are inappropriate for high school students.

There are ways to steer clear of conflicting gym schedules between schools; middle schoolers need only 90 minutes of gym per week and can take it for either two or three days a week in each semester. High schools also have the option of offering gym for two or three days a week, and the only difference would be that gym would be required for eight semesters instead of seven. The four schools in the Jerome Parker Campus could coordinate specific days and times for their physical education classes so on some days a class may have the entire gym to itself.

The city and state could also look to other districts in the country; Chicago requires only one year of physical education for graduation, and that can be substituted with health, ROTC, and even driver’s education. This would allow students more time to take classes that interest them or perhaps get their permit and learn to drive without having to attend after-school or weekend classes. Los Angeles requires two years of gym that can be substituted entirely with team sports, athletics, or dance, as well as one semester of health. Yes, New York is trying to cut the obesity rate among children. But is 45 minutes a day of minimal activity really helping the problem? Do we need almost four years of gym?

Whatever the excuse may be, physical education standards in the city and state are, in short, puzzling, and it should be a priority to create the best gym program possible to help both students and administrators in the future.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.