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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.

Weighing Healthier OptionsWhere 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-

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, Christoffel said.

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 recently failed.

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 denied. 

"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 requested waiver.

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 school, anyway.

"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 said.

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:

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

"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 Size Me.

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 training manual.

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 equation.

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 the initiative.

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 High School.

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 Pier Expo.

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 overweight.

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 said.

Sources and resources

Illinois NET -

The American School Food Service Association -

Team Nutrition -

Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children -

Illinois Association for Health Physical Education Recreation and Dance -

National Association for Sport and Physical Education -

American Alliance for Health Physical Education Recreation and Dance -

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - "overweight")

United States Department of Health & Human Services, Surgeon General's office -

PE4Life -

National Association of School Nurses -

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