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Laguna Beach Unified Pushes P.E. Into New Age of Lifelong Fitness


Lying on the floor face up, staff and faculty from the Laguna Beach Unified School District concentrated on getting it right.

"Think of yourself as a ball or a rocking chair," said Jordi Mas, fitness guru, instructing them in an exercise called roll-like-a-ball. "This is a movement that lengthens while you strengthen."

Next was the pelvic lift, in which hips are slowly angled up. "Think of your spine as a string of pearls," Mas said. "Only one pearl can lift at a time."

Say goodbye to your parents' gym class and meet the future of physical education: lifelong fitness. "It's about reorganizing the brain and the nervous system to function more effectively," Mas said.

As national studies show fitness falling and obesity rising among youths, school districts across California are trying alternatives to the old standards of softball, volleyball and calisthenics. In San Francisco, teachers study yoga so they can apply its principles, which they say improve students' concentration. Some L.A. Unified schools offer juggling, Frisbee golf and wall climbing.

Laguna Beach's program, which started in January, aims to augment, not replace, conventional gym-class activities. Instead of jumping jacks, a P.E. class might do breathing exercises. The curriculum is still being developed.

The idea met some initial resistance. Victoria Stalker, whose four young children are in the district's schools, says she practices yoga but doesn't think it ought to be taught in the classroom.

"I just don't see how it will help my kids at this level," she said. "If the day were longer, I'd have no problem with them doing some breathing and stretching. But the schools should be doing math and English first before adding this extra stuff."

Others objected because fitness guru Mas, 31, is the son of school board member Susan Mas.

"It's sort of a 'made' job," said Rosemary Walli, who has two children in elementary school. "We would do a lot better if the kids just got more schooling. I think they learn lots more from team sports than from these individual things."

School officials say the program grew from a push four years ago to set priorities.

"Things were in total disarray," said Kathryn A. Turner, a school board member. "Orange County had gone bankrupt, and we were almost bankrupt." The district had seven superintendents in the seven years from 1991 to 1998, she said. "We were desperate, without a rudder."

When Theresa A. Daem took the helm of the 2,600-student district in 1998, one of her first actions was to set up a mission task force. Though the district ranks No. 1 in Orange County in annual spending per student--$7,411 for 2000-01--a survey by the California Department of Education that year found that its students had a high incidence of drug and alcohol abuse, Daem said. Although children were doing well academically, a survey of students found that they felt a lack of emotional support from their schools and community and wanted more opportunities for meaningful participation.

"That was a strange thing for us to encounter here," Daem said. "Laguna Beach is a small community with a strong sense of social responsibility. Hearing that our kids didn't feel supported was a major surprise."

The task force recommended rewriting the curriculum to include activities that would encourage social and emotional well-being. That meant a make-over for physical education.

The state requires schools to offer P.E. but lets districts decide exactly what to teach and how. Daem insists that lifelong fitness will not phase out team sports, nor will it decrease time devoted to academics.

Regarding the district's hiring of Mas, she said, "It was totally on merit." His mother "had no part of it, and she has no financial gain. He's done an outstanding job. The only gain is for the district's students and staff."

Under Jordi Mas' contract as a staff development consultant, he teaches 90-minute classes every other week. The sessions, held after hours in a P.E. room at Thurston Middle School, are free for faculty and staff. Attendance is not mandatory. Mas is paid $60 an hour.

Mas said he is a certified personal trainer who specializes in techniques like Pilates, a gentle muscle-toning discipline that emphasizes posture. His classes also incorporate aspects of yoga.

Only 10% of Mas's students so far have been physical education instructors. The goal is to eventually incorporate the techniques into academic classes as well, Daem said. "I want to create a culture around it, not just for 20 minutes a day."

If some parents are skeptical, teachers are enthusiastic.

"This is great," second-grade teacher Sandi Booth said as she finished a session with Mas this week. "It's made me more aware of my posture and how I walk."

Teacher Sandy Gravely said she was eager to employ Mas' techniques in her lifelong fitness classes at Top of the World Elementary School. "A lot of the time, P.E. is just taking them out to play kickball. Kickball is fun, but it won't benefit them as adults," she said. "This is something they can do all their lives."

Gravely said she has hit only one snag, and she plans to spend part of this weekend fixing it: "I'm going to draft a letter to the district asking for more floor mats."

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