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Fitness finds way into curriculum and culture
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by Lee Ann Roy

Dawson News & Advertiser

Several factors have helped physical education and fitness programs earn places of respecteven distinctionamong their academic counterparts as fitness standards are being incorporated into curriculum in Dawson County schools.

Among the factors, a 2011 report ranked Georgia second to worst in the country for percentage of children ages 10-17 who are overweight or obese.

Governor Nathan Deal launched the SHAPE (Student Health and Physical Education) initiative in May, backed by legislation passed in 2009, to assess and promote fitness among the states youth. The U.S. Department of Agriculture awards schools with outstanding nutrition and fitness programs through the HealthierUS School Challenge. And Dawson County Schools participation in the non-profit Alliance for a Healthier Generation and its Healthy Schools Program has heightened awareness of the roles nutrition and fitness play in successful learning.

Beginning this school year, all Georgia students in P.E. classes taught by certified physical education teachers are required to have annual fitness assessments using an assessment and reporting tool known as Fitnessgram. P.E. teachers will measure students cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and body composition.

Instead of rating performance by percentilesas the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge does, basing performance levels on how other children in the nation have scoredthe SHAPE initiatives Fitnessgrams will compare childrens performance to an objective set of fitness standards. Individual scores will be illustrated graphically, placing students in a healthy fitness zone or indicating specific areas that need improvement.

Individual reports will help students and parents see strengths and weaknesses and learn what can be done at home to improve the students fitness. Performance reports pulling data by class, grade or school will help teachers plan physical activities that address weak areas.

Finally, results will be reported annually to the state. Consistent data collection on health related fitness standards will establish baseline data, provide an opportunity to track and monitor trends, and enable development of effective strategies to combat childhood obesity.

The pressure is on for schools to show student fitness improvement each year. Although the standards are the same across the board, P.E. teachers have their own ideas about how to teach them. Whatever their methods, they are relying on the support of other teachers and staff, administrators, families and their communities to improve student health and fitness.

Research shows if kids are physically active, they perform better, says Pat Muenchen, P.E. teacher at Kilough Elementary School, who looks for every opportunity to work physical activity into the students days, both in and out of class. He recently distributed to teachers 11 pages of Jammin one-minute exercises they can have kids do during random fitness bursts he recommends inserting into class time.

Muenchen conducted an unofficial Fitnessgram assessment this fall and is already working with his students to improve performance. That means more push-ups, more crunches and longer sustained running times. Muenchen coordinates the Kilough Marathon Club, a group of 150 kids, teachers and parents who meet Mondays after school to run. He organizes two races each year and has added a fall Field Day to the annual spring event. Every P.E. class ends with a fitness tip for students.

My passion is to raise kids awareness of the importance of physical activity, he says, noting the kids are already seeing results of their efforts since the assessment. Theyre proud of what theyre accomplishing.

At Robinson Elementary, early assessments identified upper body strength as an area needing improvement. Everyone is hoping a brand new, $7,000 rock climbing wall installed in the gym just before Thanksgiving will help. Kids dont need expensive equipment to stay physically active and strong, and schools certainly cant afford it these days, says physical education para-professional Xarissa Bolz. In this case, the P.E. Department, supported by students, teachers, parents and the community, had been saving proceeds from fundraisers for nearly seven years to buy the rock wall.

In addition to their regular gym exercises and activities, Robinsons 3rd through 5th graders benefit from CrossFit, a strength and conditioning program used by police academies, military special operations units and professional athletes. P.E. teacher Lori Hubbard is certified in CrossFit Kids. The workouts are fast and challenging and, as one young student reported, It makes you sweat.

I try to get kids excited about fitness to help them meet the standards, says Sarah Pruitt, a P.E. teacher at Blacks Mill Elementary School. Pruitt and para-professional Denise Ledford work hard to create that excitement, while integrating P.E. standards with the academic curriculum. For example, when the kids are studying Pioneers, P.E. classes will include physical activities that were typical for Pioneer children. The study of shapes may be integrated into a dance class in P.E., where the Virginia Reel, for instance, would be used to illustrate parallel lines.

We dont stand around and wait, Pruitt says of the fast pace she maintains in her classes. A dozen warm-up stations keep students moving and reduce the amount of equipment needed, since only a few children are at a station at one time. Favorites include Fitness Monopoly, with the gym floor serving as the game board, and Passport to Fitness, in which students passports are stamped as they travel through the world of fitness and complete physical activities along the way. On a recent day, two Nintendo Wii motion-control video game consoles enabled a doubles tennis match, a dance program and circuit training to be held in one P.E. class.

Fitness is everywhere, every day, Pruitt concludes. Were teaching elementary school students they can incorporate physical activity into whatever they are doing. Thats how they can get into the Healthy Fitness Zone.