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    Monday, November 28, 2005

    Gym Class Makeover

    If you were anything like me in high school, dance class every day after school and aerobics instructor at the local Y, lover of yoga and weight training, loather of volleyball, dodgeball, flag football, and kickball, exercise-aficionado who couldn't get picked for the team, you'll be as happy as I am to read about the new trend in school P.E. programs:

    Less Sports, More Fitness.

    In a mirror-lined dance studio teenagers sashay through a number from the musical "Hairspray." Next door in the weight room, teacher Shawn Scattergood demonstrates proper form on the leg press.

    At Northport High School on Long Island, physical education also includes yoga, step aerobics and fitness walking, as well as team sports like volleyball and basketball. There are archery targets, soccer fields and a rock-climbing wall where students inscribe their names to show how high they get.

    For anyone who grew up when P.E. meant being picked last for softball, it's a dizzying array of choices. ...

    While the offerings at Northport, where the median household income is $86,456, may exceed those at many public high schools, the school is representative of a national phys ed trend that promotes fitness and downplays competitive sports that leave the uncoordinated feeling left out.

    "There's been a major trend by school districts to improve their fitness centers," said Tom Caione, director of physical education for the suburban Bedford Central School District north of New York City. "It's really not 'roll out the old ball,' as it was." ...

    more Miami-Dade students are choosing to take phys ed since the district started providing elliptical trainers and heart-rate monitors and adding classes like kayaking and snorkeling, Greenberg said.

    "By offering these more innovative lifetime activities we're getting them back," she said. "On the average the kids that are overweight are losing 8 to 10 pounds a semester."

    At Northport High, the gleaming weight machines and well-maintained tennis courts rival an expensive health club. There is also a sprawling "adventure" area where students can perform team wall-climbing exercises or reach for a trapeze from the top of an 18-foot pole.

    Fourteen-year-old Stephen Jackman said he enjoys team sports like flag football and ultimate Frisbee but was looking forward to the weightlifting unit, because "you're just competing against yourself."

    As remarkable as the up-to-date equipment, the school district's mission statement is striking, too: "Classes are undertaken in an active, caring, supportive and non-threatening atmosphere in which every student is challenged to grow. ... Every student, regardless of ability or ability level, is provided with a learning environment that is modified, when necessary, to allow for maximum participation."

    At the recent dance class, led by full-time dance teacher Kaylie Howard, pupils were at all ability levels, and one was in special education.


    This phenomenon was starting when I was in high school. In addition to all the sports options, there was a weight-training option. I wish it had been even more varied.

    I don't think we should eradicate opportunities for athletes; for many kids, sports are what get them to school each day and they should be valued as much for those skills as for academic ability. (Check this article for more on that topic.)

    However, most kids don't thrive on competitive sports. Most of my worst memories of school happened in P.E. and I truly think I would be a less bitter person today had I been spared the evils of daily gym class. Intramurals and after-school sports programs offer options for athletes too.

    I also hope that these new programs spread to public schools in lower income areas, as those kids are most likely to be obese and most likely to live sedentary lifestyles.

    I also think that kids should be able to take community classes or participate in community sports programs (at church, the Y, community centers, Parks and Rec, etc) for school credit. It was possible, but difficult, to do so where I went to school and it was not possible before 10th grade.

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