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Student Well-Being

Physical Attraction

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 02, 1997 18 min read
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.


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.

Teachers from other schools, after hearing that students were now hurrying to gym class, wanted in on the action.

At Lawrence Eckert Intermediate School, students are immersed in a four-week integrated lesson on fishing. The PE teachers cover boating safety and fishing techniques. In science class, students study the biology of fish and other water creatures. Math class immerses them in weights and measures. And they delve into environmental issues, the weather, navigation, and map reading with social studies teacher Terry Britton, the resident fishing fanatic.

“They live, eat, and breathe fishing during these weeks,” Britton says. “They are learning a lot more than how to catch a fish.”

At the end of the lesson--part of a national initiative called Hooked on Fishing, Not Drugs--local parks and recreation professionals bring fish into the classroom to show students different species. The class is then ready for a field trip to a nearby lake where the youths can show off their skill in baiting hooks and casting lines.

Physical education teachers in Aldine routinely work with their peers in other subjects to plan lessons around what they are learning in other classes. They even play a role in preparing students for state tests.

The brightly colored scarves feather through the air as students throw one up, one down, arms circling in front of them, attempting to master the fine art of juggling. This is not just an exercise in clown antics, but a carefully planned lesson in sequencing that PE teacher Bob Byrns has devised to help students perform better on upcoming state tests. The lesson is part of Byrns’ increasing academic role at Walter and Inez Stovall Elementary School.

“They have to learn that there is a logical sequence to events. If you miss a step on a math problem, it will be difficult coming up with the correct conclusion,” says Byrns. “When writing a story in language arts, if you don’t come up with a logical sequence to a story, followed by the conclusion, it doesn’t make sense. The same in juggling. You have to learn step 1 before you learn step 2; if you don’t learn step 2, you’ll never learn step 3, and you won’t be able to juggle.”

The transformation has been profound. Teachers and administrators now believe that physical education teachers are as critical to school success as their peers in the science or math departments.

“Other teachers used to keep students in their class and out of PE if they wanted to cover more [in their subject],” says Norma Lopez, a pe teacher at Drew Academy. “Now teachers realize the importance of this class. We don’t have free days. It is a structured class, and every day there is a specific lesson.”

Many credit the metamorphosis to the moxie of a 5-foot-4-inch fireball named Sharon Sterchy.

Administrators gave Sterchy free rein when she signed on as the district’s new wellness director. After a stint as an assistant principal in a nearby district and a career teaching physical education in Texas, Missouri, and Wisconsin, Sterchy brought with her more than her considerable experience.

Even before her first mandate as director, her infectious enthusiasm and steadfast determination had convinced her new bosses that she would get the job done.

The first test of her mettle happened only a few days into her tenure. Some veteran teachers she encountered were more than a bit skeptical of her agenda. She walked into one high school gym class, and the teachers didn’t even bother to stand up to greet her, she says. They sat in their folding chairs drinking coffee while those students who wanted to played what was then commonplace--an elimination game of dodge ball.

“They couldn’t care less that I was even there,” she recalls. “I got to my car as fast as I could and cried on my way back to the office. I thought, this program is so far gone, it’s hopeless.”

But the next day she forced herself to return and formulated a plan to win over the bulk of the district’s 300 teachers. She soon discovered a strong cadre of educators who wanted change and were willing to work with her.

She started with subtle changes to get the ball rolling on her five-year plan to revamp the program.

“I tried to ease into the changes so nobody felt threatened,” Sterchy says. “The teachers in the district were outstanding individuals who had been squashed down over the years. Their morale had to be rekindled.”

The first move: a districtwide dress policy that required students to wear uniform fitness apparel. Sterchy decided to break away from traditional gym uniforms--the one-piece jumpers for girls and polyester shorts for boys--that have long roused the dread of fashion-conscious students. The boys and girls were asked what they wanted, and the district responded with baggy, cotton, draw-string shorts and T-shirts bearing a district logo.

Almost immediately, more students began participating in class. Because they were required to dress anyway, the students figured they might as well get off the bleachers. Coupled with other changes, such as repairs to showers and locker rooms and a move away from team sports, the results were striking. Now many teachers report a better than 90 percent participation rate.

Other changes followed. Beginning with two schools, Sterchy encouraged teachers to get more creative. They cut back on team sports, added aerobic activities and innovative group games, and taught children how their bodies function. They brainstormed and came up with more inventive ways to get kids excited about exercise.

“At first, my coaches did not want to change,” acknowledges Sue Wooten, the principal for 19 years at Mattie Teague Middle School, one of the program’s pilot sites. “But once they started, we couldn’t stop them. It has created an excitement not only with our kids but with our teachers. It’s been a renewal for a lot of our PE folks.”

Teachers from other schools, after hearing that students were now hurrying to gym class, wanted in on the action. Part of that enthusiasm sprouted from new opportunities that have been foreign to most school programs, experts say.

‘I tried to ease into the changes so nobody felt threatened. The teachers in the district were outstanding individuals who had been squashed down for years.’

Sharon Sterchy
Wellness Director
Aldine School District
Houston, Texas

Aldine was the first district in the country to pilot an in-line skating program. When Sterchy broached the idea with teachers and administrators, they told her she was crazy. The district wouldn’t pay for expensive equipment, and the potential for injurywasn’t worth the risk, they said. But Sterchy was determined. On her drive home from work every day, she saw groups of scrappy kids, with shaved haircuts, oversized jeans, and high-top sneakers spending their time skating in streets and courtyards.

“I got to thinking that those are kids who don’t want to do PE,” Sterchy says. “But they want to skate; they will do exercise.”

Amy Arman is one of them. Suited up in skates, knee and elbow pads, wrist guards, and helmet, Amy can skate with the best of them. But the 14-year-old Teague Middle School student maintains that she is no athlete. She doesn’t participate in sports and rarely undertakes any kind of physical activity on her own. Yet she loves coming to PE.

“This is fun, and it’s something I could learn to do,” Amy says.

The program is one of the most popular among students in the district and has won national acclaim. And to date, not a single serious injury has been reported.

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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A version of this article appeared in the April 02, 1997 edition of Education Week


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