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Schools Failing to Meet Phys Ed Standards

More than half of the districts studied by the state are not providing youngsters with the minimum required amount of exercise.

June 09, 2006|Michelle Keller | Times Staff Writer

Despite an alarming rise in childhood obesity, more than half of California elementary schools are skimping on physical education, according to a report released Thursday.

Records from the California Department of Education collected over the last two school years showed that 51% of school districts reviewed failed to meet the state's minimum requirement of three hours and 20 minutes of physical education every 10 days for students in first through sixth grades, the California Center for Public Health Advocacy said.

Health and education officials expressed alarm that schools were neglecting a key part of childhood development, particularly since the number of overweight children ages 6 to 11 has increased significantly in the last 20 years, from 7% in 1980 to 18.8% in 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This report highlights what we have known for a long time," Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement. "Childhood obesity and poor nutrition are endangering our children's health and their ability to learn."

The report looked at records from 73 school districts, which serve a total of 28% of the state's students.

Among the many school districts that failed to meet state requirements was Los Angeles Unified, with a total district enrollment of more than 700,000 students, and local districts such as Pasadena Unified and Inglewood Unified.

Bans on junk food and soda sales on campus have put L.A. Unified ahead of the game in the realm of health, but district officials cited lack of funds for training teachers as one of the reasons that P.E. classes may have fallen by the wayside.

"In California, we don't have P.E. teachers at the elementary school level," said Marlene Canter, Los Angeles school board president.

"Regular classroom teachers are expected to teach P.E."

The school district is working on a variety of programs to increase students' physical activity and has appointed a physical education consultant to oversee P.E. curriculum, Canter said. "We do not want physical education to get lost in the shuffle."

The consequences of a sedentary lifestyle are grave. Children who are overweight can develop high blood pressure and high cholesterol and are at a higher risk for type 2 diabetes.

They are also more likely to have issues with self-esteem, said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, public health director for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

Through regular physical education, schools can teach children that exercise can be part of a healthy lifestyle, Fielding said.

Thursday's report worries health and education officials, who already see lack of physical activity as a key problem in older children.

In Los Angeles, 68% of high school students failed to meet recommended levels of physical activity, a 2005 CDC study found.

Amanda Purcell, policy director for the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, and other health experts believe that an increased emphasis on improving scores of standardized tests may play a large role in curtailing the time devoted to physical education.

"There may be an attitude out there that we need to focus on standardized tests," Purcell said. "But we don't see it as an either/or proposition; physical education can complement the other academic pursuits. A brief, daily 20-minute break may help them concentrate when they come back."

Two years ago, the state Department of Education began monitoring compliance. School districts failing to meet the requirement are given 45 days to comply or set up a plan to do so.

Thus far, the department has not penalized any district, since all have met requirements after receiving notice, said Camille Maben, director of school and district accountability for the department.

The requirement, which averages out to about 20 minutes every day, has significant benefits for California students.

"It's an opportunity for kids to be active, giving them the opportunity to let off steam," Purcell said. "That 20 minutes spent outside could be more productive than doing a few more math problems."

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