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It's a stretch for schools to find enough space for P.E.

As students' health becomes a bigger issue, space constraints in L.A. Unified make fitness tougher to achieve.

November 27, 2006|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

Say "squishy-squashy" and students immediately know what to do in the model physical education program at Van Nuys Middle School.

It means "move in close enough to touch somebody, but don't," one administrator explained. The command is an attention-getting time-saver -- before or after a physical activity -- when teachers need to be heard.

But metaphorically, the invented word could apply to P.E. in the Los Angeles Unified School District as a whole. Squishy-squashy could stand for oversized P.E. classes that become too squished -- and a curriculum that, as a result, gets altogether too squashed.

Reducing class size is being trumpeted as one of two key goals -- along with raising salaries -- of the teachers union leadership as it negotiates a new contract. And although class sizes are uncomfortably large at most grade levels and in many subjects, nowhere are they more packed than in P.E.

Last year, the five largest P.E. classes were at Emerson Middle School (123 students); Fremont High (90 students); Poly High (85 students); Griffith Middle (80 students), and Gompers Middle (76 students). At least four middle schools had average classes of more than 60 and at least five high schools averaged more than 56, according to district data.

Although new state funding and other state and local efforts could improve the picture, the story is similar this year. In essence, P.E. teachers frequently handle double classes. And they typically have to herd their charges without the aid of four walls.

"Why would they think one human being could take care of 70 students?" said Freddie Thompson-Esters, a P.E. teacher who specializes in dance at Hollywood High. "We're expected to run a good, productive program, and it's just impossible. First and foremost, it's a safety problem."

It's also a problem given that P.E. instructors, like other teachers, want to teach -- and now have new and newly enforced state standards to contend with. The large classes result in wasted time, student disinterest and sometimes students ditching class, instructors say.

Administrators haven't focused much on P.E. because their schools' reputations rely so completely on academic test scores. But fitness is a matter of life and death for many students.

More than 36% of Los Angeles fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders are overweight, concluded a 2005 report from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. And 82% of ninth-graders in L.A. Unified are not physically fit, as judged by state fitness evaluations released this month -- though that's an improvement over last year's 87% failure rate.

"This is the first generation in the history of the country in which our children will have a lower life expectancy than their parents if present trends in obesity and inactivity continue," said Robert Garcia, executive director of the City Project, which advocates for equal access to parks, schools and health services.

The challenge of managing an effective physical fitness and education program is paradoxically underscored by the success of Van Nuys Middle School. The 12.7-acre campus of 1,550 students is frequently singled out as an exception, with its aggressive pursuit of grants, its dedicated and long-serving staff, a supportive administration and a sense of mission.

Van Nuys has worked to keep classes somewhat smaller, but one class still has 68 and the average is just under 50, said Jim Clemmensen, who works closely with the P.E. department while coordinating the school's magnet program for math and science.

Classes are spaced far enough apart so students don't distract each other. And youngsters are immediately taught that a teacher's double-clap requires instant attention to the code word that follows.

Hence the highly technical, instantly understood term squishy-squashy. With class periods less than an hour and time needed to change clothes twice -- into and out of shorts or sweats -- any time-saver helps.

One recent day, the student quad, typically an area for socializing, did double duty during classes as a Frisbee golf course. Simultaneously, about 60 students squeezed into a second-floor, undersized gym that would barely contain a regulation basketball court. There, students moved through the paces of kick-boxing. Outside, 50 others scampered across asphalt basketball courts performing running, shooting and dribbling drills. Across the way, Kurt A. Krueger was getting ready to test students on self-defense skills.

The students were notably on task: All were dressed in gym clothes; they scurried through their paces; they kick-boxed with determination; they curved Frisbees into red buckets.

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