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, schools.nyc.gov, 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 I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.