Published Online: April 2, 1997

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Physical Attraction

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Forget the gym classes of cutthroat team sports, ugly uniforms, and humiliation. A new generation of PE blends exercise with academics and is fun to boot.

Houston

The sounds of rock 'n' roll echo throughout the gym as a step-aerobics class warms up. Feet stomp to the beat as they march in unison up, down, front, side of the plastic benches that have become so familiar in health clubs around the country. The instructor picks up the pace and intensifies the routine, shouting directives and encouragement to keep going. As heart rates rise and the sweat starts streaming, participants wage half-hearted protests at the cost of getting fit. But the health benefits they start to feel and see after the first few weeks of daily workouts are worth the price.

The gym contains other trappings of high-priced clubs as well: exercise bikes and stair-stepping machines, a weight room, a swimming pool, trained fitness instructors.

But this is no health club.

It is just one of the options for students at Chester W. Nimitz High School to fulfill their physical education requirements. Their classmates may be learning about camping, finding their way in the woods using maps and compasses, studying the fine points of weight training, or facing the challenge of an outdoor survival course.

Around the Aldine school district here in Houston, elementary school students are immersed in games that combine vigorous physical activity with nutrition and health lessons. Middle school students are attempting to balance the mind and body on in-line skates or mountain bikes. And teachers from every discipline are getting involved in efforts to integrate academics with physical education.

It is all part of the district's campaign to inspire in children a love of lifelong activity and fitness.

If your memories of pe are of basketball games dominated by the best athletes, endless sit-ups, push-ups, and jumping jacks, or frustrated attempts at climbing scratchy knotted ropes to the ceiling, make no mistake. This is no gym class.

In Aldine, even the name of the course doesn't resemble what most adults remember as physical education. The wellness program in this district of 48 schools and 48,000 students is not just about sport and recreation. It is an innovative compilation of exercise and academics. From 1st grade on, students gain a gradual understanding of how proper exercise through a variety of sport and leisure activities, good nutrition, and commitment to health and safety can vastly improve their overall well-being and quality of life.

So far, the campaign has won over even the most inactive of children, their parents, and teachers.

The gaggle of 4th graders at Thomas E. Gray Elementary School push themselves on yellow scooters through the plastic right atrium to the styrofoam tricuspid valve. They pass a rubber ball through the Hula-Hoops that form the right ventricle and jump rope when they've reached the pulmonary artery. They roll, hurdle, crawl, and hop through the rest of the obstacle course, simulating the flow of blood and oxygen to and from the heart. They know the sequence and the vocabulary well, for they've been studying how the heart works in the phys ed class for weeks. Posters labeling the various parts of the heart and describing their functions line the walls of the gym.

Physical education classes were not always so inspiring in Aldine. Just a few years ago, the district had many of the same problems that have challenged and frustrated officials, teachers, and students for decades. PE was not taken seriously.

Many administrators and teachers viewed the program as a glorified recess, which took time away from valuable academics. Although Aldine students were required to take physical education throughout elementary school and three semesters in secondary school, there were few academic requirements. Over the years, grades and mandates to dress for the classes were eliminated. Some schools had no gymnasiums and lacked sufficient equipment.

Among PE teachers, there was a serious morale problem. Colleagues in other disciplines did not see them as genuine teachers. Uninterested students sat on the bleachers week after week concocting all kinds of excuses to get out of the day's activities. They forgot their gym clothes, they felt sick, they were nursing injuries from previous classes.

"You'd walk to the gym area and you'd look to see how many kids are going to be sick today and on the sideline not participating because they didn't want to get out there and do the same old thing," says Vernon L. Lewis, an area superintendent who was a principal in the district for years.

The traditional emphasis in the classes had been team sports. Many teachers, especially those at the upper grades, coached the district's interscholastic sports. Their skills seemed a natural fit for teaching the sports-oriented classes. In Texas, where residents take high school football and basketball as seriously as their barbecue, coaches enjoy substantial status. But in the classroom, that status did not necessarily inspire unskilled and unprepared students to convert to athletics. So many teachers resorted to devoting class time to pick-up games or free play.

Students not inclined to play such sports, or those repulsed by the idea of working up a sweat in the middle of the school day, migrated to the sidelines. In some classes, as few as 30 percent of the students dressed for gym. For many of the others, PE became a social hour, time to cram for a test, or a chance to catch up on homework.

"Kids were playing slaughter ball out there," Lewis says. "We knew that there was a problem, and that it had to be programmatic. We were simply not meeting the needs of the kids."

But teachers and administrators knew it could be different and sought ways to infuse new life into the program. They knew that for many of the students, a good PE program was critical.

"Many of our kids are from families and environments where a healthy lifestyle has not been a priority in their house," said David Baxter, the principal at Charles R. Drew Academy, an intermediate magnet school for math, science, and fine arts. "We needed to help break some of those negative cycles that are so prevalent in our community."

In some classes, as few as 30 percent of the students dressed for gym. For many of the others, PE became a social hour, time to cram for a test, or a chance to catch up on homework.

The district is no model of country club living. About three-fourths of the students are from minority groups, and 60 percent are economically disadvantaged. Most live in apartment buildings with few green patches. Access to private sports lessons, costly health facilities, or even youth leagues is far out of reach for many.

Acknowledging the greater prevalence of health problems in minority and low-income communities, district officials decided that health and fitness needed to be addressed more seriously.

In 1990, they hired a new physical education director, a position that had been vacant for a year. They conceived a new vision for the existing program, one that embraced overall wellness, lifelong activity, and commitment to exercise, personal safety, and healthy living.

But making fitness a routine part of life, teachers said, also meant making it accessible and fun for all students. Getting other teachers to equate its importance with other subjects required a more academic slant. Nowadays, students practice vocabulary and spelling, execute math problems, and learn science concepts in PE class.

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