At a time when many schools are making large cuts to physical education to make more time for academic priorities, the largest school district in the nation has embarked on an ambitious plan to rebuild its physical education program.
The 1.1 million-student New York City school district has centralized and expanded its physical education program. In 2003, for the first time in nearly 30 years, the city hired a central director in charge of physical education, and in the past two years, it has added 10 regional physical education directors and provided teachers with a standard curriculum and monthly professional development.
The district has earmarked about $340 million to be spent over the next five years for physical education improvements.
The district’s renewed emphasis on physical education could not have come a moment too soon, said Carl S. Gridelli, a health and physical education teacher at the 1,000-student George Gershwin Middle School in Brooklyn.
“The department of education was cutting many [physical education] programs so they could give the kids more reading and math,” he said. “But they weren’t getting their physical education, which is paramount in the child’s development.”
Lori Benson, the district’s director of fitness and physical education, agreed.
Choosing a Curriculum
“Not only is there a national obesity crisis,” she said, “but there is a childhood obesity crisis right here in the city.”
Ms. Benson said a 2003 study showed that 43 percent of elementary school children in the city were either overweight or obese. The study, released in June by the New York City health department, analyzed the weight and height of nearly 3,000 children in the city. It also found that 21 percent of children were already obese when they entered kindergarten.
“I think the work they’ve done in New York City will make a significant difference to lots of kids,” said Judy Young, the vice president of programs for the Reston, Va.-based American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, which designed a physical education curriculum the district is using. “These physical education activities… can make a tremendous difference.”
The city chose a curriculum called Physical Best—which focuses on aerobic activity, flexibility, body composition, and muscular strength—and its corresponding assessment, the Fitnessgram, which provides parents with a fitness-level summary.
This curriculum, Ms. Benson said, is more focused on teaching students the connections between physical activity and a better quality of life than it is on enhancing their skills in any given sport.
The program—tested last school year in 100 schools—trained 700 district teachers. This year, the city has trained 300 more teachers, and it plans to have all physical education teachers trained in the curriculum by the end of the 2005-06 school year.
New York City has also started what Ms. Benson calls a “renaissance” middle school sports program. Called CHAMPS—or Cooperative, Healthy, Active, Motivated, Positive Students—the program allows students to choose from a wide variety of after-school activities, including nontraditional sports such as fencing, as well as fitness activities such as yoga and tai chi.
CHAMPS began as a pilot in 50 middle schools last spring, and this year, it will expand to 100 schools with 600 winter and spring activities.
An important feature of the new emphasis is arranging monthly professional development for teachers. Previously, the teachers had no opportunities to communicate with one another.
Kathleen Walker, the director of fitness and physical education for Region 5, which includes Queens and Brooklyn, said sharing ideas is essential for the city’s teachers.
“We have tremendous experience in our ranks that comes from just learning the hard way sometimes,” she said.
Lori T. Mele, who teaches physical education at the 800-student, K-5 Horace Mann School in Queens, has seen two major improvements in her school’s physical education program because of the district’s renewed emphasis.
First, the school hired a new physical education teacher. Before the new teacher arrived, not all the students were getting a gym class once a week. Hiring the teacher allowed every child to participate in physical education at least once a week.
Second, the city’s new, centralized system has helped simplify tasks such as ordering equipment.
As part of the physical education initiative, the New York City school district has forged a partnership with the Trust for Public Land to build and cultivate playgrounds and open space at elementary and middle schools. The $25 million program will target 25 low-income, high-density schools over the next five years.
The trust, a national, nonprofit land-conservation organization, will choose the schools from a list provided by the education department and contribute one-third of the funds. The rest of the funding, $17.6 million, will be provided by the city’s education department.
A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2004 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Renews Physical Education Efforts