Published Online: April 2, 1997


Physical Attraction

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Physical education is tied to the core curriculum.

Today, Sterchy is Alice the Alligator. With her head peeking through the wide-open jaws of the stuffed, green costume, she breaks into a little rap tune about safety at the pool and beach. The elementary school students squeal with delight and try to follow the beat. Some months later, she knows her message was heard when a teacher reports that one little girl saved a neighborhood boy from drowning in the community swimming pool.

On other days, she might talk about nutrition disguised as Barney the Banana. She even does a gangster rap in which, dressed appropriately, of course, she warns of the dangers of drugs and violence.

Monday morning administrators' meetings have not been the same since the district went on the wellness kick. Bagels have replaced doughnuts, and sleepy-eyed administrators no longer have a chance to vegetate during the presentation. If Sharon Sterchy is there, attendees groan, for they know they will have to take part in the obligatory pre-meeting stretch.

The first time Sterchy came to such a meeting, stood on a table, and forced principals and district officials to stand up for some blood circulating, mind-stimulating exercise, many thought she was kidding.

She wasn't.

Teachers share similar stories of professional development conferences at which Sharon Sterchy has done her stuff. In return, she expects some cardiovascular work. She has also taken them fishing and rock climbing and coaxed them through obstacle courses and survival exercises.

Her enthusiasm has inspired teachers to exchange high-fives and kudos in the breezeways and hallways.

"She just doesn't stand still," says Cathy Gibson, the principal of Stovall Elementary School, who often finds a bran muffin on her desk with a note wishing her a nice day. "Sharon is assigned to over 40 schools, yet she is a part of this campus. She is like the ultimate cheerleader for all of us, not just the PE instructor."

She travels four days a week, hauling equipment and new ideas to schools. On any given day, her minivan, which has logged more than 20,000 miles since Sterchy bought it new last summer, is packed with CPR dummies, aerobic benches, props and costumes for her safety presentations, or boxes of materials for teachers to use in class. Her office is spotless, a testament to her long absences and obsession with order.

At the age of 10, Sterchy knew she wanted to be a PE teacher. It was then that one of her own teachers motivated her and her classmates in much the same way she tries to inspire Aldine students. When a high school counselor told her she wasn't smart enough to get into a good college program, she proved her wrong. After earning a bachelor's in physical education and health at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, she completed a master's in educational administration and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction.

At 48, her years of shouting in the gym and cheering her 15-year-old son Jonathan to victory in swimming, track, and bicycle racing have taken their toll. After two vocal cord surgeries, her doctors recommended she take on quieter pursuits. Those who know her, including her husband, Richard, a former teacher, would argue that her latest position is not the answer.

"She can't stop talking about this stuff," says Jan Leek, an adaptive specialist who helps teachers find ways to challenge students with disabilities in physical education classes. "People are mesmerized by her. She inspires people everywhere she goes."

That reaction, though, is not universal. Some teachers haven't bought into the program and disagree with Sterchy's agenda. At one school, which she refuses to name, she has given up the struggle. After an encounter with the principal several years ago, it was clear the school could not be converted to the new program. With school-based management operating in the district, she lacked both the clout and the desire to force change. She hasn't been back since.

Other teachers continue doing what has satisfied them for years: team sports, elimination games, the old PE.

Sterchy gradually tries to win them over. Many are incorporating some of her ideas into their classes.

There has been some compromise to appease coaches. High school students can opt to spend their daily 90-minute gym class playing team sports--at either competitive or recreational levels. And the program has won some benefits for the sports nuts. Sterchy and Larry Gnatzig, the varsity track coach at Douglas MacArthur Senior High School, recently won a grant to purchase heart monitors.

An early morning drizzle turns into a blinding rain, but the chill doesn't scare the phys ed class from the track at MacArthur High. The students, many of them members of the cross-country team, are testing out a new toy: heart monitors.

"I just had one of the best workouts of my life," says 16-year-old Melad Kawaja, a member of MacArthur's cross-country team. While testing the heart monitors, Melad could gauge how hard he was pushing himself and whether he could pick up the pace.

Gnatzik chases students up and down the home stretch, checking their heart rates after several quick laps around the track. He tells them to slow down or speed up, accordingly.

"I can now tell whether a kid is really working their hardest or slacking off a bit," says Gnatzig, who has led his team to two state titles in recent years.

Helping each teacher to reach his or her own peak is Sterchy's mission. But she refuses to dwell on those unlikely to budge. She chooses instead to focus on the gains she has made and the growing enthusiasm among her staff. There has been an unprecedented shift throughout the district with teachers, administrators, students, and the community among the converted.

'It used to be that at open house I would stand out in the hall and try to flag down parents to come into my gym. Now, I have groups of parents flocking to the gym to find out what we're doing.'

Jack Flannery
physical education teacher
Mary M. Bethune Academy

"We hear comments from parents and older siblings. They ask what we're doing to these kids," says Baxter, the principal at Drew Academy. "When they go shopping, they ask to buy more vegetables and grains. "The community has relayed to us that [the wellness program] is becoming important to them as well."

Jack Flannary, a physical education teacher at Mary M. Bethune Academy, a magnet high school, has also noticed greater interest among parents. "It used to be that at open house I would stand out in the hall and try to flag down parents to come into my gym," Flannary says. "Now, I have groups of parents flocking to the gym to find out what we're doing."

That awareness of how the program works and the changes it has inspired in both teachers and students has been the greatest sales pitch of all, Sterchy's colleagues say.

"She gets the job done and makes all of us look good at the same time," says Patrick Dunn, a first-year PE teacher at Nimitz. "We have seen results in the students, we get more than 80 percent of the grants we apply for, and teachers are excited about what they are doing. With someone like her working on our side, we definitely have job security."

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