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Putting fitness front and center

The days of competitive sports are out in P.E. classes as schools tailor programs for variety

Posted: August 17, 2009 9:04 p.m.
Updated: August 18, 2009 4:55 a.m.

George Velarde, chair of the physical education department at Sierra Vista Junior High School, prepares students for a relay race on Trikkes, three-wheeled bikes that promote coordination and balance. The bikes are one aspect of Sierra Vista's new physical education curriculum, which focuses on health and wellness rather than competitive sports.

 
At Sierra Vista Junior High School, the days of playing competitive sport after competitive sport in physical education are long gone.

These days students can hop on virtual-reality bikes and travel through scenic locations, all without leaving the gym.

Seventh- and eighth-graders can crawl up rock-climbing walls or take part in a game of "Survivor," in which students work together to overcome mental and physical tasks.

Each activity is one way kids can get excited about physical education and committed to staying fit well after junior high days are over.

"The old P.E. is teaching traditional sports," said George Velarde, chairman of Sierra Vista's physical education department. "The new P.E. is teaching health and wellness."

The curriculum overhaul began in 2002, when the students' weak scores on the state's annual physical fitness exams gave teachers inspiration for a new way of teaching physical education.

Under the new P.E. program, students are exposed to a range of physical fitness options when they meet daily for 45 minutes, Velarde said.

Some days mean focusing on cardiovascular training by using stair steppers and ellipticals, while other days bring students together to mimic exercise training videos.

"The beauty of our program is the variety of activities that we offer to the kids," Valarde said. "The kids are never bored. We rotate all the programs. Every day is literally like a new day."

Once a week, students work out at the school's fitness center, which has become a big hit.

"The heart and soul of our P.E. program is our fitness center," Velarde said.

The center is home to a rock-climbing wall, virtual-reality bikes and endurance machines, he said.

Up to 150 students can work out at the center at one time.

Creating a new culture
Sierra Vista's approach to P.E. has evolved into a nationally recognized physical fitness program.

For the 2008-09 school year, the school received the Carol M. White grant for $260,000, Velarde said. The California Coaches Association named Sierra Vista the 2009 recipient of the Physical Education Middle School of the Year award.

A major component of the program's success is its ability to meet the needs of different types of learners.

"We're just making things so interactive with the kids," Velarde said. "They're getting what they want and we, the teachers, are getting what we want."

It's become an expectation among students.

"The kids don't know any better," he said. "We have built a culture in our school where our P.E. program is the center of our school."

A ‘fun' work out
Erica McKenna, 15, enjoyed Sierra Vista's new approach to physical education.

"It was a lot of fun to work out," said McKenna, now a sophomore at Canyon High School. "You didn't have to think about working out."

McKenna especially enjoyed following the workout programs on the televisions and riding the virtual-reality bikes.

McKenna, who has always been active in sports, knows the significance of staying fit.

"I think it's important because it makes you feel better as a person, confidence wise," she said. "It's good for your body."

Sarah Miller, also a sophomore at Canyon, remembers not enjoying P.E.

Taking the P.E. classes at Sierra Vista changed that, and she began to enjoy the weights.

She had never ridden on a virtual reality bike until attending Sierra Vista.

"There's a lot of stuff to do. There's something for everyone to enjoy," she said.

Elementary fitness
The state mandates that elementary students take part in 200 minutes of physical education for every 10 school days.

Fulfilling that obligation is left largely up to the elementary school sites as teachers and administrators determine the daily amounts of P.E. for students.

Some school sites have physical education teachers, but with budget cuts, teaching physical education to students is more and more the responsibility of students' primary teacher, said Marianne Hamor, categorical programs administrator for Sulphur Springs School District.

To make up for state shortfalls, school districts like Saugus Union and Newhall have turned to grants that fund P.E. teachers or to train teachers to get students active.

Regardless of who teaches it, at Sulphur Springs School District, the physical education curriculum teaches students the proper physical and mental health expectations, Hamor said.

Even the simple concept of water and the body's need for it begins in kindergarten, she said.

The concepts develop with every grade level as students are later taught about motor skills, social interaction and sportsmanship, Hamor said.

Physical education at Sulphur Springs often means teaching kids new games.

"What we do with our children is try to teach them some of those games during P.E. time so they know how to play them during recess and lunch. If we don't teach them that, they're not going to play," Hamor said.

When it rains or the outside air is unhealthful, students learn physical education inside, Hamor said. Those lessons focus mainly on health standards, like body awareness, healthful eating and the effects of exercise on the body.

Along with promoting fitness in the classroom, schools like Valencia Valley and Pico Canyon elementary host "Run for Fun," said Nancy Copley, assistant superintendent of instruction for the Newhall School District.

The event is not a competition but encourages students to run by giving them a T-shirt and a medal.

Teaching P.E. to teens
For junior high and high school students, the state requires 400 minutes for every 10 school days, said David LeBarron, director of curriculum for the William S. Hart Union High School District.

Physical education is required in junior high school, but high school students only need two years of P.E. to graduate, LeBarron said.

Junior high students sign up for P.E. and it becomes part of their daily schedules, like a mathematics class.

Since P.E. is a graduation requirement, the classes have to be offered, regardless of budget cuts, LeBarron said.

"Like every other department, it's going to be tighter and tighter" since state cuts have been made, he said.

While students take part in physical activities outdoors, the junior high and high school curriculum creates classroom time for students to learn about the foundation for a healthful lifestyle, LeBarron said.

"The focus really in all of our programs is to really build a strong focus on physical fitness, not just sports activities," LeBarron said.

Tracking the numbers
School districts are required to administer a physical fitness test to fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders every year.

The tests assess six fitness areas, including cardiovascular endurance, percentage of body fat, flexibility, and strength and endurance.

The goal of physical fitness tests is to encourage physical fitness instruction so that students will be more likely to adopt lifetime patterns of physical activity, according to the California Department of Education.

Locally, school districts use the data to assess schools and determine how to improve.

"(Administrators) really do look at their data to see an area they need to focus on and try to come up with a plan to help their students," Copley said, adding that the priorities and goals are written into the school plan.

Saugus Union maintains a wellness committee that includes representatives from schools, parents and food services, said Joan Lucid, assistant superintendent of instruction and curriculum.

"We have really made significant progress in taking a look at the whole child," Lucid said.

‘Healthy Fitness Zone'
The state classifies students as either in, or not in, the "Healthy Fitness Zone."

Students "in the zone" are considered protected from potential health risks.

At Sierra Vista, annual test results show a significant improvement in the physical fitness of students.

"Our fitness scores are now one of the top in the state - top in the district by far," Velarde said.

Results from the 2000-01 California Physical Fitness test show that nearly 39 percent of seventh-graders at Sierra Vista were classified as not in the healthy fitness zone when it came to the percentage of body fat.

The latest 2007-08 figures show a significant improvement, as nearly 23 percent of Sierra Vista seventh-graders tested are not in the healthy fitness zone for body composition.

The effects go beyond fitness.

"There's research that shows that when kids are healthy, they learn better. They do better academically," Hamor said.
Velarde can attest to that.

"Our (Academic Performance Index) scores have improved dramatically from the moment we have changed our philosophy in P.E.," he said.

Is it enough?
Local administrators view physical education as a way to lay down the stepping stones of a healthful lifestyle.

"I think it's a good minimum for a school day," Hamor said. "We want to keep the kids active. We also want to be teaching them about their body and about nutrition. I think that's a key aspect to childhood obesity."

As for physical education in school, it's just one piece of the puzzle of solving childhood obesity.

"More (P.E.) time wouldn't be bad, but I doubt it would solve the problem of childhood obesity," LeBarron said.

Copley agreed.

"Is it enough to overcome childhood obesity? No, it's not enough," Copley said. "Given the academics we must cover, (the amount of physical education) is reasonable."

A family environment
It all goes back to creating a health-minded family culture.

"I do think that physical education and fitness really has to be a family priority," Copley said.

To help families set such a priority, schools like Wiley Canyon and Peachland elementary have hosted "Family Fitness Night," Copley said.

Velarde hopes to expand the fitness nights at Sierra Vista.

"We still have a lot of room for improvement," he said.

Velarde hopes to establish community relationships with organizations like the Santa Clarita Valley Boys & Girls Club. Even workshops and symposiums are part of the school's outreach efforts.

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