BY NATALIE CERABINO
Educators and legislators in Florida are going to school. With new guidelines outlining the physical education programs in Florida, school districts are being forced to rethink their long-forged practices. A little more than a month ago, Florida Governor Charlie Crist drafted the “Half-hour-a-day PE Law” requiring elementary school students in the state of Florida to participate in at least 30 minutes of physical education classes daily as opposed to the 30 minutes weekly as they have practiced previously.
Motivated by the growing trend of obesity in children and adolescents, Crist is pushing this bill in an attempt to solve poor health in American youth, according to an article in the Tampa Bay Tribune. “We’re trying to create a culture of activity in our elementary schools,” Republican Rep. Will Rutherford, the bill’s sponsor, was quoted as saying in an Associated Press article.
Statistics like those found on the Alliance for a Healthier Generation website show that one in four children do not participate in physical activities in their free time, supporting Crist’s initiative. Only 8 percent of elementary schools nationwide require daily physical education lessons. In recent years, it has also been found that kids are averaging four to five hours of screen time every day in front of the latest television shows, computers or video games.
The youth need to get moving, that much is certain. But at what cost to our education system? Although noble in intentions, Crist’s harnessing of the state’s governing power in order to accomplish this goal does not necessarily mean it will be accompanied with adequate funding, or funding at all. On the contrary, the responsibilities fall to individual counties to pull money out of their already tight budgets in order to pay for the number of gym teachers needed to accommodate the entire population of the school in daily gym classes.
“I’m not sure that anyone really understands what it means,” said Beth McHale, a kindergarten teacher at S.D. Spady Elementary in Palm Beach County. McHale has taken her class to recess for scheduled increments of 20 minutes a day for as long as she can remember. Not every Spady teacher does, though, and the upper grades only get 15 minutes on the playground. In addition to this daily playtime, McHale’s class visits Coach Nelson, Spady’s PE teacher, for physical education on a rotating cycle along with other specialty programs. Students alternate between art, music, media, computers, and PE on a six day time period. Nelson’s days under this system are already scheduled down to the second, seeing students from bell to bell during the school day.
The proposed law has not made a specification between recess time and PE class. McHale speculates that under the ambiguity of the directions from Tallahassee that the free time students get to participate in their choice of physical activity during recess will morph into a more structured class format to satisfy the ruling.
The question still remains about who would be teaching these classes? McHale expressed emphatically when asked about the possibility of hiring more gym teachers, “I truly doubt it.”
Being that schools are not able to support a expansion of their staff, schools have been looking within their own to allocate help. Guidance counselors, art and music teachers, and teacher’s aides are now receiving crash courses in PE curriculum. Cindy Banks, a teacher from Cypress Trails Elementary in Royal Palm Beach, is happy to encourage physical activity in her students but does not believe herself qualified to fill in for a fully trained PE teacher.
“I don’t want to be trained as a PE teacher,” she was quoted as saying in an article in the Palm Beach Post. “I never wanted to be a PE teacher just as they never wanted to be a reading teacher.”
Despite the lack of absolutes in the execution of this law, every educator and legislator can agree that students need physical stimulation in the face of the rising apathy of children toward their own health.
“They should be playing, they should be outside,” McHale said.
Crist, equipped with the ability to lead Florida’s governing power on to many solutions for the reasons attributing to the rise of childhood obesity, has chosen one that is near impossible to execute. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation cites both poor nutrition in school food and the lack of a variety of supermarkets and inexpensive meal options in poor neighborhoods as causes helping to inflate the statistics and our kids.
“I don’t know how they are going to do it,” McHale says in reference to the governor’s new plan. “No one really does.”