Elementary PE days reduced, activity time increased


By Christine Bolaños

Effective in the fall, students at Liberty Hill Elementary School will take physical education class three times a week instead of daily.

Staff cited safety and quality of the program amid student growth as the reasons for the change, and say the change will not cut back on physical activity time for the children.

Some parents are not so sure, however, and gathered 100-plus signatures on a petition in hopes of changing staff’s mind after the information was leaked to the community.

“Safety is a biggie. When we have to put as many kids as we do and consider it would only be larger next year; you put that many little bodies even with the additional adults there’s always the possibility of an accident occurring. We really worry about that,” said Curriculum Director Claudeane Braun. “Even our volunteers have noticed that: ‘Hmm, that’s a lot of little kids in one space at one time.’”

Elementary School Principal Melanie Herbst said the shift in days will change the class ratio from its current three instructors to 75 children to two instructors to 42 children. The school has a half-sized gym.

“We’re running three classes of kids, which could be as little as 66 but as many as 75 some days, and so between that and the adults that are in the room we could see as many as 80 people in the gym at a time,” Herbst explained. “Physical movement is limited by the number of people in the gym. Also the level of accessibility to physical activity is limited because they have to wait their turn.

“What we find is that kids have less physical activity in that space and more time waiting so we want to provide an opportunity where they’ll have more one-on-one time with the coach, actually learning those PE skills and be more active.”

Braun believes the change will put students in a “winning” situation because the schedule will include activity breaks.

“If they have PE in the morning then they’ll have a recess in the afternoon so total time, take out the time that they’re not waiting in line, they’ll have increased time of physical activity,” Braun said. “They’ll be in a small enough group for the instruction piece to be able to more effective.”

Herbst said teachers at the school support keeping students engaged in the classroom.

“At the young age we know that means movement,” she explained. “When they’re not at PE or recess they’re doing activities within their classrooms, whether it’s rotating through centers or it’s doing GoNoodle activities (interactive breaks for classrooms).”

The school’s staff was celebrated as a GoNoodle Champion because of the campus’ effective use of the program.

“They are brief activity breaks to kind of transition between things,” Herbst said.

“It’s dancing and it’s running in place to try to get so far on the United States map,” Braun cited as examples. “We know that physical activity helps the mind work. Not just keep the kids attentive, but actually keeps more areas of the mind more focused and working.”

The school principal said she and her staff are considering embedding times on non-PE days where students may be able to participate in the coach’s running club.

“It’ll be a great way to keep motivating the kids to get their miles in,” Herbst said.

Some parents are not convinced these additional activities will make up for lost days in the gym.

“We all know that classroom teachers are not going to want to ‘provide alternate physical breaks for free and/or structured movement and play in the morning and the afternoon every day’ because they are too concerned and pressured to complete state requirements,” said parent Valerie Zapien. “Classroom teachers are not certified in PE so they shouldn’t be expected to. Furthermore, without teacher buy in, research shows the likelihood of this plan being implemented long-term is highly decreased.

“These teachers are not going to be compensated for this extra work and it is going to take their attention away from what they are evaluated on at the end of the year,” Zapien added. “Since safety seems to be the district’s primary reason for decreasing PE, I question whether having these activities in the regular classrooms should even be an option. Small classrooms with desks and chairs in them are less safe than a gym full of kids because they are not designed for these types of activities. It seems like the school district has just created more problems than it has solved.”

Some parents, like Zapien, are upset that parents were not a part of the decision-making process and disapprove of finding out about the change because it was leaked out into the community. Staff said it was leaked when the change was still in draft form and nothing had been decided at the time.

“This is what we have considered the best option for our kids. It’s a done deal,” Braun said. “This is what we feel like we have to do to have an appropriate program to provide for safety.”

Both Braun and Herbst agreed that with the change there will be more one-on-one time with students and coaches, as well as more time for actual physical activity. Students will meet their state-required weekly physical activity time of 135 minutes at the gym. That will be surpassed with recess or other physical activities throughout the week.

“Parents should be given the opportunity to voice their opinions before any major changes happen that affect our children to this magnitude. If this is our district’s standard decision-making process, then the community needs to stand up to change this,” Zapien said. “If you are a parent you know we only get one chance to create a solid, healthy foundation for our kids. Our school officials know the research and facts about the effects of exercise and learning, therefore, there is no excuse for decreasing PE time.

“… It is completely unacceptable to leave parents out of the decision making process when they are obviously showing interest and concern,” Zapien added. “The community has resources to help the schools, if only they would ask.”

While the community may not have been part of the decision-making process, the physical education department was. In addition, staff said, student safety concerns are typically addressed internally. Not much would get done if they discussed options with the community for each decision that needs to be made, they pointed out. Thus, some decisions, such as this one, are made at staff’s discretion.

“Coach (Lori) Cosper, when I initiated the conversation, she agreed it was crowded and busy and can be very hectic,” Herbst said. “She is our biggest supporter of PE and loves our kids. We sat down together and looked at the plan.”

Some parents have provided what they believe to be alternative solutions such as utilizing gyms at other Liberty Hill campuses or their staffs. Additional staff, Braun pointed out, would just result in even more crowding issues than there are presently. Transporting children to another campus gym during PE time would reduce the amount of physical activity even more, they argued.

Vocal parents continue to voice their concerns about how fewer PE days could result in health issues down the line.

“I want my kids to get to move and play and enjoy PE every day. I want PE to help them learn to enjoy movement, not to fear running or pull-ups or not being as athletic as their peers. But more than that, I want them to get the whole-life benefits of daily PE that are proven through research,” parent Ali Lucas said. “Our kids will be healthier and more ready to learn with daily PE, no question.”

Because it’s so uncommon for school districts to offer daily PE, Lucas said it was a deciding factor for several families’ move to Liberty Hill.

“With the disclosure of the decision-making process as well as letting parents be truly heard, I think there is a positive resolution in sight,” Lucas added. “I know the amazing staff at LHE has our kids’ best interest at heart.”

A similar issue arose previously at Bill Burden Elementary that was resolved at the time. However, because the student population keeps rising at that campus as well, it is likely the school will need to consider a change in PE days there, too, Braun said.

“At that point we went with the option of dividing up our classes with two PE teachers, but most of the time the two teachers are in the gym with a very large group. I’ve actually asked them at Burden if we’re at the point where we need to do this (there), too, for the quality of the program to continue,” Braun said.

Staff encourages parents to attend the school’s June 8 meeting at 6 p.m. to learn more about the PE days’ shift and other “exciting things” happening at the campus. They’re also encouraged to come with questions they still need answered.