Monte Vista Elementary students are running in class. And jumping. And stretching. Teachers not only look on, but encourage the behavior. The 3-6 grade teachers are guiding students through targeted exercises and games as part of the Early Sport program, a research-driven fitness program that exemplifies 'new PE.'
That means stressing cardiovascular fitness over competition, through games designed to prevent the onset of early chronic diseases, like diabetes, that have become a childhood epidemic. "Kids don't have to be an athlete to participate in Early Sport. We have a wheelchair-bound student who participates on the same level as other kids," notes Kathy Anderson, principal of Monte Vista.
The program is a star in Utah's Jordan School District, which has reinvigorated its tired PE program with a K-12 emphasis on lifelong fitness.
Feeling the Burn
Developing a kid-friendly fitness routine is a serious workout. When Early Sport presented its initial curriculum to the district, they received a blistering critique, says Boyd Jentzsch, president and CEO of Early Sport Foundation.
The term Butt Lift, for example, was an elementary crowd no-no; the exercise remains the same, but district experts renamed the exercise Seat Lift. Weight control is addressed in a subtle fashion with materials directed at parents instead of shared with children in class. Other suggestions incorporated in the final curriculum include adaptive exercises and bilingual posters.
A five-week study of the EarlyGames component of Early Sport put the program through the paces--with participants strapping on heart-rate monitors and getting blood chemistry tests. The results were a clear victory for EarlyGames, indicating that participation reduces kids' risk factors for cardiovascular disease, early osteoporosis and Type 2 diabetes. For example, total cholesterol among the study group using the program dropped by a factor of six.
A Muddy Playing Field
In many districts, funding shortfalls and No Child Left Behind pressures have pushed physical education off the academic playing field. A 2000 Centers for Disease Control study, the most recent available, revealed that only 8 percent of grade schools were offering daily PE.
Early Sport puts PE back in the game. The program is a win-win for schools by eliminating funding hurdles and adding an academic spin in the gym, says Boyd Jentzsch, president and CEO of Early Sport Foundation. The foundation has joined with corporate sponsors to offer the program, which teaches third to sixth grade, non-PE teachers how to develop students' lifelong physical fitness, at no cost to any participating districts.
The Perfect Recruit
Across the country, video games and TV compete with healthy after-school outdoor play. Fast food is everywhere. More children are overweight and obese than ever before. And NCLB throws a curve ball with increased pressure to focus on core academics. Often remediation for struggling children occurs during recess or PE.
The final strike for Jordan? Elimination of funding for phys ed specialists at the elementary level during a budget crunch. "PE fell on the shoulders of the classroom teachers. Many lacked the training and classroom management skills to effectively teach PE," explains Julie Christofferson, the district's healthy lifestyles and fine arts consultant.
So when Early Sport approached the district with an offer to help develop a fitness-focused, no-cost, teacher-friendly PE program, administrators jumped at the opportunity. Fifteen curriculum specialists coached the foundation through the curriculum development process.
Exercise for the Mind and Body
The Early Sport curriculum includes exercise and game cards, with activities focusing on sports skills like dribbling and catching instead of competitive games. Many games build brain power as well as muscle mass. For example, the teacher can shout out multiplication facts and ask children to complete different activities depending on an even or odd answer. Mini-lessons on nutrition, meanwhile, pull double duty by instructing kids on the importance of hydration while developing their technical reading skills.
The one-two punch of academics and fitness continues with Early Sport's GoZonkers Radio Adventures, seven minute, in-class radio operas designed to raise kids' heart rates. As kids hear stories and music, they slink like a snake or spider walk around the classroom. One enterprising fourth-grade teacher who caught on to her students' enthusiasm for GoZonkers assigned them the cross-curricular task of writing their own radio operas.
Early Sport is just one member of Jordan's fitness team. In 2004 the district received a national $951,711 grant to focus on lifelong fitness. It will, for one, provide Early Sport training for 3-6 grade teachers at remaining elementary schools.
The grant also enabled the district to hire Elementary PE Specialist Bruce Brinkman to teach K-2 teachers pint-sized fitness routines, many of which combine academics and fitness. Alphabet Movement, for example, links letters with activities like jumping or skipping. This helps kinesthetic learners, explains Brinkman.
Because a gym full of active kids differs from the regular classroom environment, teacher training sessions include a healthy dose of PE management tips--such as how to divide students to physically and behaviorally balance teams. Trainers also demonstrate kid-sized heart rate monitors.
That emphasis on measurable data continues at the secondary level. PE specialists rely on TriFIT computerized fitness assessment tools to perform health and fitness analyses and to help students devise personal fitness plans.
Overall it's the marriage of fitness, technology and staff development that works, notes district consultant Julie Christofferson. "Being fit prepares children to learn well."
Jordan School District, Sandy, UT
No. of schools: 56 elementary, 15 middle, 10 high schools, plus 1 alternative high school, 2 applied technology centers, and 3 special schools No. of teachers: 3,024 No. of students: 73,849 Ethnicity: 92% white, 5% Hispanic, 2% Asian, 1% black Per-pupil expenditure: $4,607 Dropout rate (2003-04): 3.7 percent Salt Lake County Population: 924,247 Superintendent: Barry Newbold, since April 1996 www.jordandistrict.org.
Lisa Fratt is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Wis.