Under fire, CPS tells schools to find 15 minutes for exercise

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After Catalyst Chicago requested an interview with the Illinois State Board of Education to ask why the state’s daily physical education requirement was being neglected in the city’s public schools, Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins swiftly sent an e-mail directive instructing top staff to make sure schools comply with the law.

The e-mail, which mentioned Catalyst’s conversation with state officials, stated that “All elementary schools are required to have daily P.E. Classroom teachers can conduct structured activities (15 minutes or more) and the school/district will be in compliance. … Please advise AIOs,” Eason-Watkins wrote. Catalyst obtained a copy of the e-mail from a principal.

“In general, people in CPS don’t understand the need to have daily physical education for all students and they don’t have the budget to do that,” says David Thomas, an exercise science professor at Illinois State University in Normal, who recently co-authored a study on Chicago’s P.E. program. In many schools, physical education programs suffer from too few teaching positions and inadequate facilities and equipment, he says.

Chicago is not the only district to flout the law. At least 20 percent of schools are also ignoring it, Thomas says. In 1997, Chicago was granted a 10-year waiver, but only for 11th- and 12th graders; the district argued that students needed more time in their schedules to meet higher graduation requirements.

Some local health experts say that 15 minutes of daily activity is an improvement, but still violates the intent of the law, which states only that children should engage in physical activity “for such periods as are compatible with [their] optimum growth and developmental needs.”

Scientists recommend at least half an hour of strenuous physical activity each day, according to Mark Peysakhovich, senior advocacy director for the American Heart Association. “Fifteen minutes is certainly not science-based.”

Stretching, dancing, acting out stories

Many principals say they agree with the new mandate-“It’s what’s right for kids,” says Paula Rossino, principal of Peirce Elementary in Edgewater; “They don’t exercise enough,” agrees Lori Lennix, principal of Doolittle East in Douglas—but wonder how to fit yet another requirement into the school day. However, research has shown that exercise can help boost test scores.

By the end of the first week of school, some principals had hit the ground running to implement the new directive.

At Doolittle East, teachers are leading exercises on the playground for 15 minutes after lunch. Lennix says that most of her faculty are young and don’t mind the assignment, and she plans to pair them with less-enthusiastic veterans.

Arai Middle teachers in Uptown are brainstorming ideas for activities with each other and the gym teacher, says Principal Barbara Hayes. Some already use stretching or other physical activity to revive students between lessons, she adds. At Barnard Elementary in Beverly, kids are stretching and dancing to music or rhythms, says Principal Alan Molesky.

At Schubert Elementary in Belmont Cragin, the P.E. teacher shared a website (ncpe4me.com/energizers.html) with classroom teachers with activities that could be incorporated into academic lessons, such as acting out stories or vocabulary words. When the gym is free, teachers can also bring kids down to play with jump ropes and hula hoops. The music teacher even had kids do jumping jacks to music during a lesson on rhythm, reports Principal Elba Maisonet.

“It is a mandate,” she says with a laugh, “So you try to do the best you can.”