As study after study finds students who exercise regularly perform better in the classroom, school systems like Los Angeles USD are working to enhance elementary and middle school physical education programs.
LAUSD is funding a new program in which 17 physical education instructors are sent to five elementary schools to train classroom teachers to lead their students in an outdoor PE class, in addition to their regular classroom learning, says Chad Fenwick, the district’s K12 physical education advisor.
Teachers at the schools—which apply to be part of the program—also will be provided with balls, racquets and other equipment. After two years, the instructors will move onto another set of elementary schools.
“Teachers will learn how to teach the kids skills like throwing, striking, catching, dancing and tumbling,” Fenwick says. “Studies show the more skills students learn, the more physical activity they’ll get the rest of their lives.”
The district has received a grant funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide PE training to classroom teachers at an additional 22 elementary schools. A National Institutes of Health grant will fund similar programs at Los Angeles middle schools. The district also is developing standards-based assessment tools to measure students’ athletic skills.
“Our emphasis is moving toward learning the skills rather than assessing fitness levels,” Fenwick says. “Every child can be successful —we know if they learn those skills they will be healthier.”
Two LAUSD middle schools—Audubon and Patrick Henry—will participate in a study of bicycling’s impact on learning. After the students cycle during PE, they will go to the classes in which they are struggling the most. Fenwick says he expects the study to show that students learn better right after exercise.
At the high school level, a report from the University of Kansas is the latest to find a link between participation in sports and academic achievement. In the study, Professor Angela Lumpkin and doctoral student Rebecca Achen found student athletes in Kansas—regardless of gender or ethnicity—performed better than their peers who did not play sports.
“Students in the study involved in athletics attended more days, had lower dropout rates and higher graduation rates,” Achen says. “Being students and athletes really helped them to continue coming to school and got them to persist to graduate because they had something else motivating them to be there.”
A key to the link isn’t that athletes are any smarter than non-athletes, Lumpkin says. It’s that Kansas requires students to pass five credit hours each semester to participate in sports.
Participating in sports also teaches students about time management skills that are applicable to their academic work and other aspects of life.
“They learn to manage their lives better,” she says. “They learn self-discipline because they have to push themselves, and they have to watch their diets and sleep patterns. There are a lot of positives.”