It has been over a decade since California implemented the current requirements for physical education minutes in grades K-12, but schools across the state still are not meeting those standards. Arguing that it is not just a health issue but also a civil rights issue, The City Project challenged school officials in Los Angeles to do better.
California law requires that every 10 school days, children in first through sixth grade complete at least 200 minutes of physical education—an average of 20 minutes per day—and students in grades 7 to 12 complete at least 400 minutes. According to an analysis of audit records obtained by The City Project, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit advocacy and legal organization, half of the state’s school districts failed to meet that minimum requirement between 2004 and 2009. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) was found to be out of compliance every year. For LAUSD's 680,000 students, over 90 percent of whom are children of color, the negative health consequences could be seen in the low number of students meeting state standards for physical fitness.
"As civil right attorneys," says Robert García, Executive Director, Counsel and Founder of The City Project, "we look at the problem and ask ourselves, is there a legal solution that can help address such disparities?"
"Research shows that students who are physically fit also tend to do better academically," García emphasizes, and making that link helped him persuade the teachers' union— United Teachers of Los Angeles—to organize a public campaign in support of physical education. With teachers and the public solidly behind him, García then filed an administrative complaint with LAUSD on behalf of parents, youth groups and health advocates under civil rights and education laws to require the school district to enforce the state’s physical education requirements.
What began as an outside group pressing the district to make changes soon evolved into a positive collaboration between the two, and formal litigation proved unnecessary.
"We were already working on improving physical education within the district, but we faced a number of challenges, and it was moving along slowly," says Chad Fenwick, LAUSD Physical Education Advisor since 2004. Schools had inadequate equipment and a lack of knowledge of the law, while multiple-subject elementary teachers had insufficient preparation and training to teach the necessary physical education classes.
On first hearing about García's complaint, Fenwick recalls saying, "I think we should bring him in and work together."
Their shared goals led to a partnership that succeeded in getting the school board in 2008 to unanimously adopt a resolution to enforce and implement the state's physical education requirements. The impact of those changes is being evaluated with help from an Active Living Research (ALR) grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). This national program of RWJF supports research to examine how environments and policies influence physical activity for children and their families, especially in lower-income communities and those where obesity rates are high. RWJF's childhood obesity prevention initiative also places special emphasis on reaching children in communities of color.
For both Fenwick and García, the resolution goes beyond getting schools to meet the physical education requirements. "We're trying to get students to be physically active for the rest of their lives," says Fenwick, a former middle school physical education teacher.
California schools measure physical fitness based on aerobic capacity, muscular strength, endurance and flexibility. Students who achieve "healthy zone" scores, adjusted for age and gender, on five out of the six measures are considered fit. Instead of comparing themselves to their peers, students focus individually on improving their health.
"It's not a skill-related test but a health-related test," says Fenwick. "Students do the assessment and—from middle school on up—they write their own improvement plan."
As physical education classes become more consistent and more engaging, and more classroom teachers are trained to teach physical education classes, students start to feel good and learn better, too, says Fenwick. "They love it. They eat it up. They know exactly when it is and what they are going to do. And the classroom teachers who participate feel better too. Some are losing weight themselves."
An article co-authored by García and Fenwick documenting their success—"Social Science, Equal Justice and Public Health Policy: Lessons from Los Angeles"—was published in the Journal of Public Health Policy in 2009. In 2010, in recognition of his work empowering underserved communities, García was awarded the American Public Health Association's prestigious President's Citation.
Fenwick, who continues to guide LAUSD's physical education improvements, is particularly proud of the district's "marathon kids." A total of 18,000 children in 105 elementary schools each completed 26 miles—the equivalent of a marathon—running one-quarter mile at a time, between September and March of the 2009–10 school year. Students and teachers completed their final mile with a big celebration at UCLA.
"A quarter-mile might not seem like much, but it shows that it's the little changes—a little bit, all the time—that add up. It shows students that you don't get in shape all at once, and you're done."
Based on that same idea, physical education requirements are ongoing throughout the school year. "It's not like a subject you learn and go on to another," says Fenwick.
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