With gym class, schools try to get creative

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Expanded Learning TimeFollowing a mandate to begin providing 30 minutes of physical education each day for students, some elementary schools are having a tough time as they prepare to meet the new requirement.

One such school is Blaine Elementary in Lake View, which has one gym teacher for around 950 students. The school, already at 138 percent capacity, will not receive no additional funding from the district to help implement the daily mandate.

According to an analysis by the Chicago Teachers Union, 28 elementary schools have no gym teachers, and overcrowding and budget cuts have left many elementary schools without adequate facilities and equipment for physical education classes.

Jon Sikes, the physical education teacher at Blaine, says he currently sees students once a week for an hour. But because of the size of the school, Sikes doesn’t see every class each quarter. He estimates that Blaine would need to hire at least one additional full-time gym teacher and one part-time teacher to teach every class each week.

 “We’re getting a similar budget to what we had last year, and that budget didn’t include an additional PE instructor,” he says. “Most of the funding being offered is being given to the high schools, so we’re trying to figure out how to work around the space and staffing issues. It’s tough.”

CPS plans to use part of a $21.5 million surplus in tax increment financing funds to hire physical education teachers for high schools. CPS has had a waiver since 1997 exempting junior and senior high school students from the physical education requirement. The waiver expires this summer. Although there has been no official waiver for elementary schools, many also routinely failed to meet the state’s requirement.

Realizing that many schools may struggle to implement the policy, CPS says it will phase it in; it will go into full effect in the 2016-2017 school year. This fall, school s will have to offer only an hour and a half of phys ed a week. CPS also says it will be flexible and allow schools to use alternative spaces, such as classrooms and cafeterias, for gym classes.

Blaine needs space, along with teachers, to meet the phys ed mandate. A special committee from Blaine has submitted a proposal to the state for $22.5 million to build an annex, including multi-purpose space that could be used for gym classes.

“We’ve got budget constraints and major space constraints,” says Kate Schott Bolduc, a Blaine local school council member and chair of the Blaine expansion committee. According to Bolduc, the school has cut its preschool program in half, and ELL and special education students are in the same space. Many support staff work out of closets.

The CPS mandate is part of a renewed focus on physical activity and student health, marked this week with the launch at Gunsaulus Elementary of the Be Active. Eat Right. Learn Better! campaign. CPS had previously rolled out its 30-20-10 program in 36 schools, in which students receive 30 minutes of physical education, 20 minutes of recess, and 10 minutes of classroom physical activity per day.

Creative solutions

In the past, CPS has made other efforts to spur schools to incorporate healthy living activities into the school day. Schools with more resources have, not surprisingly, made more strides in doing so.

“Holding out for the goal of daily, high-quality PE is a good goal,” says Rochelle Davis, President and CEO of the Healthy Schools Campaign, a group that was instrumental to bringing back a recess mandate to CPS schools. Schools have faced hurdles to this mandate, too. https://www.catalyst-chicago.orgrecess-time-headed-rocky-road

Davis emphasized that it doesn’t have to be an “all-or-nothing” game, and good planning is key.

 “Most elementary students have one period of physical education,” she says. “Let’s double that. Then, let’s build on that and keep going from there. Employ the community, get everyone involved, and that can lead to some great results.”

Turning to the community might spark alternative solutions. Coaches and parents, for example, may be able to provide insight on how to engage kids in physical activity, even with space and equipment limitations.

Mario Cortez, a soccer coach whose children attend Benito Juarez Community Academy, says turning to coaches can be a great resource for schools.

“They know how to really engage kids in a short amount of time,” says Cortez. Quality physical education is key to helping kids focus and be successful in school, he says.

At Blaine, Sikes says the school is exploring different options—and that ultimately, everyone wants the requirement to work.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Sikes says. “More physical education can only benefit the kids. We just have to see how we can make that happen.”