With children jumping rope, doing push-ups and playing thumb wars behind him, state schools Supt. Jack O'Connell announced Wednesday that California's public school students are getting fitter. But just barely.
Standing in an outdoor courtyard at Van Nuys Middle School, O'Connell said that statewide, only about 27% of fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders achieved minimum fitness levels in tests administered last spring. Students were tested in six major areas, including cardiovascular endurance, flexibility and upper body strength.
But even fewer -- about 25% -- met the standards in 2003.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, only about 15.5% of students achieved the minimum fitness level -- down from the previous year.
"Clearly, we need to do more to eradicate the silent epidemic of childhood obesity in our public school system," O'Connell said.
He issued a challenge to districts to provide students with healthier meals and better physical education programs. And he asked parents -- many of whom received their children's individual scores this fall -- to ensure that their children arrive at school rested and well-nourished.
He also introduced his friend, 90-year-old fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who flexed his biceps, pounded on the podium and reminded the gathered school officials, "The only way you hurt the body is not to use it. Junk in, junk out."
"You can't separate the mind and the body," he added. "They go together as a team."
California -- the first state in the nation to require physical education in its public schools -- requires students to participate in at least 20 minutes of activity per day. Physical education classes are not subject to the same class size limits as academic subjects, so classes often swell beyond 60 students. Those numbers, many teachers say, make it difficult to teach effectively.
Betty Hennessy, a physical education specialist with the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said that the larger the class, the less likely students are to be active.
O'Connell said that as school districts have grappled in recent years with budget cuts, physical education classes often have been the first to be reduced or consolidated.
"When we see physical education classes and sports being reduced," he said, "that sends the wrong message to our kids."