Weighing Healthier Options
Financing fitness: Keeping kids, budgets healthy
by Ginger Wheeler
Illinois School Board Journal, September/October 2004
For many people, the image of public school physical education conjures up memories of
ill-fitting gym suits, begrudging participation, embarrassing shower inspections and
locker room brawls.
Where once PE was seen as a mandate for a healthy nation, today Illinois is the only
state where daily physical education is still a requirement in schools. But even here,
students don't always get enough exercise. And as PE requirements have been trimmed,
the nation's children have grown fatter and more lethargic.
The incidence of overweight adults and children has grown alarmingly in the past
decade, prompting a December 2001 "Call to Action" that encourages communities
to enlist strategies to curb the epidemic. Former Surgeon General David Satcher said an
estimated 61 percent of U.S. adults are overweight, along with 13 percent of children and
14 percent of adolescents. For youth, these figures are triple what they were in 1980.
Another 14 percent of children are at risk of being overweight. Particularly hard hit
are African-American and Hispanic children with overweight increasing more than 120
percent between 1986 and 1998 for these two ethnic groups, according to the Illinois
Nutrition Education and Training Program (INET-http://www.kidseatwell.org/).
A survey published in the January issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent
Medicine and written by the National Institute of Public Health in Copenhagen,
Denmark, found that American children were the fattest in the world. And Chicago, which
was the second fattest city according to Men's Fitness magazine last
year, now comes in fifth on the list behind Detroit, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.
Overweight children are 70 percent more likely to become overweight adults, and at risk
for a variety of life threatening diseases. "Overweight and obesity may soon cause as
much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking," Satcher said. He estimates
that obesity and its resulting problems cost more than $117 billion for our society in the
year 2000, according to his Web site.
"Obesity by itself does not lead to death," said Katherine Kaufer
Christoffel, an attending physician at Children's Memorial Hospital and a professor
of pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. "But it
does lead to Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, several forms of cancer, congestive
heart disease, asthma and sleeping disorders."
Until recently, diagnosis of these ailments has been associated most often with aging.
However, hospitals are seeing a notable increase in these types of disease among children,
Health concerns aside, overweight children are more likely to have savaged self-esteem
caused by the bullying and teasing that shadows their familial and peer relationships,
according to experts. Also, one California study showed that they performed more poorly on
academic tests than their more fit counterparts.
However, even though the surgeon general called for daily quality physical education
for all schools in 2001, the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act left any mention of physical
and health education behind.
"The omission of some subjects (in NCLB legislation), such as physical
education and health education, has the potential to create unintended negative
consequences," said George Graham, president of the National Association for Sport
and Physical Education.
Fitter is better
Leaders in the nation's physical education movement say they are working to bring
attention to the declining requirements, and stress that today's PE teaches valuable
life skills about individual fitness and overall good health. They are working to shed
more light on the fact that fitter students are better students, as well.
Although Illinois mandates daily PE for students, the rules allow schools to seek
five-year renewable waivers for a variety of reasons that enable more local control.
Schools can allow students to substitute activities such as cheerleading, marching band or
varsity sports for Illinois' daily PE requirements. Athletes who compete in
interscholastic sports can spend their PE time in study halls or taking other classes.
Schools that need to allocate more resources toward academics in the short term can
seek waivers. And schools whose facilities are not up to the task of providing daily PE
can also seek reprieve. Legislation in Springfield that would have limited such requests
And schools districts do take advantage of the local control the state allows.
Chicago Public Schools currently provide half of the required amount of PE to its
students to concentrate on academics, while 75 school districts allow students to
substitute other activities. About 200 school districts, out of 887, have some form of
waiver in place.
Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) officials say schools are granted waivers for
several reasons, but claiming high costs as a reason to escape PE is not one.
To prove the point, ISBE spokesperson Karen Craven pointed to Rockford SD 205, whose
waiver renewal was denied in June. Five years ago, Rockford was granted a waiver, by
virtue that the district needed to allocate more resources toward academics. But test
score improvements failed to materialize, Craven said, and the waiver renewal was
"They're in financial trouble. They're basically trying to
eliminate PE due to a financial situation," she said. "But 75 percent of schools
are in operational deficit spending," she added.
"We recognize that Rockford isn't alone, but PE is part of our
standards," Craven said. "The unfortunate reality is when schools try to balance
their priorities, PE becomes secondary in that equation."
Craven added that the state board is not the last stop on the quest for a waiver.
Ultimately, the state legislature will decide whether or not to grant Rockford its
High costs are more a problem with facilities than curriculum. Gymnasiums and locker
rooms are expensive to build and maintain. Physical education equipment can be expensive
to buy and keep up. And to many people, PE was something they would have rather avoided in
"Gifted athletes were rewarded by gym teachers and coaches with praise and
adoration," said one former cheerleader from downstate Illinois, "while the rest
of us, including those uncoordinated 90-pound-weakling types, suffered untold humiliation
due to a lack of physical prowess." The trick for many students was "how to get
out of it."
Cost of the new PE
Today, however, state advocates say lack of facilities or funding is not a good reason
not to provide PE. The new PE is all about personal fitness and individual fitness goals.
Small spaces can be used to implement the newer curriculum, they said.
"The most grim thing," said Don Hellison, professor of kinesiology at
the University of Illinois at Chicago, "is who is making the decisions and whether
they have a clue. I'm not impressed with what legislators know about education, yet
they're the ones doling out the money."
Hellison has spent 30 years working with at-risk and underserved youth in Illinois and
elsewhere. He said for some kids, PE is the only thing that keeps them engaged.
"At some schools, when the kids are bad, they take away PE," Hellison said,
"and then (the kids) don't get any (physical education)." Security and
safety issues in some of Chicago's worst neighborhoods also prevent students from
going outside for recess even, he said.
Robert McBride, executive director for the Illinois chapter of the American Association
for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (IAHPERD), taught gym at Eisenhower
Elementary School in Jacksonville, Illinois, for 34 years. He said lack of money is no
reason not to provide a quality physical education program.
"Some school districts have legitimate problems," he said, "but a lot of
districts just want to cut their budgets. The programs don't have to be expensive.
They already have the gyms; they already have the fields; they already have the equipment.
(Administrators) just want to get rid of the teacher salary."
McBride said IAHPERD members will come to schools and will train teachers and
administrators how to create and provide a quality health and physical education program.
He said the new PE is all about fitness, and that the only place many K-12 children learn
about health and fitness is at public school. But he claims to be facing an uphill battle.
"I'm a staff of one," he said.
Hellison said gym teachers are beginning to fight back. He points to research that
indicates that students who are more physically fit have better brain function and do
better on test scores. Children also need to burn off excess energy by being active so
that their classroom behavior is appropriate.
McBride, like Hellison, also points to the California study. "California found a
direct correlation between students who scored highest on math and science and physical
fitness levels. All California children were tested, so the results held across the
spectrum between rich, poor, race, gender and every other type of classification," he
California is the only state that requires a physical fitness evaluation for every
student in public schools, he said, so it is the only state that could gather such
comprehensive data. Information about the study is available online at: http://www.cde.ca.gov/nr/ne/yr02/yr02rel37.asp.
Finding the bright spots
Echoing Hellison, McBride said many districts throughout Illinois have wonderful
physical education programs. He points to his organization's Web site for examples of
"Blue Ribbon" schools the association has identified as excellent, available at http://www.iahperd.org/textpages/programs/blueribbon.php.
"There are some bright spots," he said, pointing to Naperville CUSD 203 and
Mundelein CHSD 120 as examples of effective PE programs that don't squeeze budgets.
Those bright spots could influence other school districts to re-embrace physical
education as an important part of an overall educational curriculum.
A visitor to the Naperville's Madison Junior High School physical education
program might mistake the facilities for a local health club. Phil Lawler is the
district's physical education coordinator and a PEteacher at Madison, where the
emphasis is on individual fitness levels, heart rates and personal goals. It's
decidedly different than participation in group sports or the competitive curriculum most
Baby Boomers and even their children would remember.
Since the district began its program in 1990, Lawler has become the official
spokesperson of PE4Life, a non-profit advocacy organization founded by Wilson Sporting
Goods' president Jim Baugh. PE4Life, along with other groups, has persuaded Congress
to set aside more than $50 million in grants for schools to purchase equipment and revamp
their old PE programs for the more individualized fitness programs.
Lawler's program was recently the focus of a "MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour"
feature on WTTW-Chicago, and was mentioned in the scathing video documentary, Super
The district also recently received a $200,000 federal grant to purchase new fitness
equipment. Superintendent Alan Leis said the district will use the grant to buy more
equipment for its 21 schools, hold training days for teachers and create an online
For the new PE, transitioning to a personal fitness-based curriculum and educating
teachers is not enough. Training kids to eat right is another part of the fitness
Most educated citizens know that eating soda pop and junk food will add weight, even
for growing kids and teens. Yet, many schools reap tens of thousands of dollars in
additional funds by selling such junk food to kids through vending machines and snack
bars. Additionally, the institutional food offerings in many lunchrooms leave much to be
desired in the healthy choices categories.
Nutritionist Mary Mullen, who with registered dietician Jodie Shield has authored
several books on the subject, including the American Dietetic Association's Guide
to Healthy Eating For Kids: How Your Children Can Eat Smart from Five to Twelve (John
Wiley & Sons Inc.; $14.95), said limiting portions and high-calorie, low-nutrition
food can go a long way toward better fitness levels for children. But, she adds, the issue
is a societal one. School boards, parents and teachers need to come together to send a
unified message to kids regarding eating right.
Many schools have done that. Mundelein CHSD 120 is one example of a school that put its
mouth where the money used to be. Mundelein traded in the vending machine junk foods for
healthier alternatives and saw a 30 percent dip in revenue, said Kelley Happ, the
district's director of public relations.
Even so, Happ said, "If we are considering the health of our students, and
nationwide we're reading about high obesity levels, then why are we serving kids
things that are not good for them? So, the superintendent said we will not sell to
kids and make money because it's not in their best interest."
Aside from some first day grumbling by students, she said, the community has supported
Mundelein also has a fitness-based PE program that resulted in positive student
feedback. Students reported losing weight, inches and dress sizes after just one semester
in the new program, Happ said.
On June 8, Governor Rod Blagojevich introduced the CATCH initiative, which begins to
address the obesity problem in children. CATCH (Coordinated Approach to Child Health)
includes classroom curriculum, food service modifications, physical education improvements
and family reinforcement to reduce cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes risk factors
in youth from third to fifth grade.
The program will be offered in 14 elementary schools across the state through the
Illinois Department of Public Health.
Ball-Chatham CUSD 5 in downstate Chatham, Illinois, has also embraced physical
education as an important part of their core curriculum. The district recently installed
$350,000 worth of state-of-the-art fitness equipment. The PE curriculum helps students
calculate and measure their personal fitness levels using heart rate monitors and other
fitness indicators. The district plans to track the students' fitness level and then
watch how the levels improve over time.
"We believe this is something that will benefit these kids for the rest of their
lives," said Len Onken, physical education teacher at the district's Glenwood
ISBE's Craven agrees. Physical education isn't what it was 20 years ago, she
said. The new PE is all about teamwork, personal fitness levels and life-long good
habits, but school boards still have to embrace the curriculum and recognize the long-term
value of the programs.
In this day and age, with ballooning obesity rates - pun intended - she said,
"maybe I'm an optimist, but I don't think PE will be sacrificed for
schools' fiscal health."
Getting together on solutions
by Ginger Wheeler
Fighting the childhood obesity epidemic is a BIG job - pun intended. From a
seemingly simple cause - too much high fat food, not enough exercise - comes an
army of solutions, each addressing a niche of the problem.
But the various factions will need to work together for success. Organizations such as
the Nutrition Programs and Education Services Division of the Illinois State Board of
Education currently funds Illinois NET (Nutrition Education Training), which works to
bring those multiple interests together. This fall, Illinois NET will sponsor a Food, Fun
& Fitness Expo to be held at Navy Pier in Chicago, October 23-24.
"We're hoping to put together some sort of prevention project that multiple
agencies can work on," said Deborah Rees, Illinois NET supervisor. "Nobody can
do this alone. We need the help of governments, communities, schools districts, educators,
the health community and corporations quite frankly."
Illinois NET, originally a federal program, seems to embody the dichotomy of the
problem. The program saw its funding cut by Congress in 1999, but has survived on state
grants since then to address Illinois' weight issues. Grants support the work of five
part-time staffers, while a bi-annual $310,000 budget keeps the group afloat.
The program offers nutrition counseling services and information to Illinois schools
and daycare providers, in addition to annual projects funded by grants, including the Navy
Rees said the Expo, which targets K-8 school children and their families, will feature
nutrition tips, fitness demonstrations, interactive exhibits and events, and a multitude
of activities with a goal to communicate healthy eating and fitness habits to prevent
The event is being partially funded by a USDA Team Nutrition grant, a national
initiative to promote life long healthy eating and physical activity for children, she
Sources and resources
Illinois NET - http://www.kidseatwell.org/
The American School Food Service Association - http://www.asfsa.org/
Team Nutrition - http://www.fns.usda.gov/tn
Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children - http://www.clocc.net/
Illinois Association for Health Physical Education Recreation and Dance - http://www.iahperd.org/
National Association for Sport and Physical Education - http://www.aahperd.org/naspe/
American Alliance for Health Physical Education Recreation and Dance - http://www.aahperd.org/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - http://www.cdc.gov/(search
United States Department of Health & Human Services, Surgeon General's office
PE4Life - http://www.pe4life.org/
National Association of School Nurses - http://www.nasn.org/
Weighing Healthier Options
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