Boston’s schools go lacking in phys-ed

Data show 1 in 4 students have none City ordered to create plan to fix problem

‘It hurts to see so little investment in athletics for kids in this city,’ said Clarzell Pearl , girls’ basketball coach at Dorchester High. ‘It hurts to see so little investment in athletics for kids in this city,’ said Clarzell Pearl , girls’ basketball coach at Dorchester High.
By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / July 13, 2009
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Boston’s public schools have failed to provide any formal instruction in physical education to about 25 percent of the city’s students, despite a state law that requires physical education be taught to all students in all grades.

Nearly 7,700 students at 15 public elementary schools went without phys-ed instruction during the 2007-08 academic year, according to the city’s school department. Nearly 4,800 students at more than a dozen high schools also were denied access to phys-ed, as were more than 1,400 others at two K-8 schools and smaller learning centers.

School officials released the findings last week after City Council president Michael P. Ross provided the Globe a survey he conducted in the 2008-09 academic year that cast a similarly bleak portrait of physical education in the city’s schools.

The systemic failure shows that the crisis in Boston public school athletics runs deeper than ill-prepared students participating on teams plagued by inadequate funding, facilities, and equipment.

“I don’t think most parents know there are some schools in Boston that offer no physical education opportunities for our children,’’ Ross said. “But I do know that most people don’t know that virtually all of our schools are offering an inadequate amount of physical education.’’

Boston’s failure to provide physical education to all its students has prompted the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to order a “corrective action plan’’ from the city. The plan, approved last month by the state, calls for Boston school officials to file a progress report in September showing steps the city is taking to remedy the problem, according to Heidi Guarino, chief of staff for the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Though other schools nationwide have also drastically cut or eliminated physical education amid a push to improve test scores in literacy and math, the survey results underscore the breadth of chronic problems in Boston school athletics that were detailed in a recent Globe series. Mayor Thomas M. Menino responded to the series by announcing he would form a nonprofit charitable foundation aimed at raising millions of dollars to close crucial funding gaps in city sports programs.

The mayor’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, referred questions about physical education to the school department.

Boston School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said she has tried to offset the deficiencies in physical education by developing a creative plan to promote physical activity in the schools through a wide range of partnerships with nonprofit groups, as well as collaborating with the city’s community centers and Parks and Recreation Department.

“I would not say it’s enough yet,’’ Johnson said. “There clearly is a lot more for us to do.’’

She said she is reviewing how each school implements its programs “to make sure we are adhering to the state requirements’’ for physical education.

The state’s standards do not set a minimum number of minutes a week for physical education, but national standards recommend 125 minutes a week for elementary schools and 225 minutes a week for middle schools and high schools. Ross’s survey found that only a small fraction of Boston’s students received enough physical education to meet that recommendation. Of the 114 elementary and middle schools in the city, only six satisfied the standards: the Mildred Avenue, Frederick, Gavin, and Umana middle schools, as well as the Curley K-8 and Mission Hill K-8.

Parents, youth fitness advocates, and community leaders are expected to cite the findings to argue that a share of the proceeds from Menino’s fund-raising drive should be dedicated to expanding physical education in the Boston schools. Many Massachusetts communities, including Needham, Westborough, and Shrewsbury, satisfy state law by providing physical education for all students in all grades.

“It hurts to see so little investment in athletics for kids in this city,’’ said Clarzell Pearl, the girls’ basketball coach at Dorchester High School, who has gone from teaching phys-ed in the Boston schools to teaching special education. “They take away health classes and physical education classes, and then you wonder why kids are walking around with 56 percent body fat.’’

Menino met last week with a group that is working on launching the charitable foundation, Joyce said. She would not disclose who participated, nor set a timetable for Menino naming the foundation’s directors or officially registering the organization.

“These things just don’t happen overnight,’’ she said.

Unlike the school department’s survey, Ross’s version named the 15 elementary schools, from Dante Alighieri in East Boston to Henry Grew in Hyde Park, that offered no physical education. He also reported that students in grades 6 through 8 at the Kilmer School in West Roxbury and the Richard J. Murphy School in Dorchester went without phys-ed classes. The school department, in response to a Globe request, released a list of high schools that do not offer phys-ed, including nine schools at the Dorchester, Hyde Park, South Boston, and West Roxbury education complexes.

Asked recently whether she considered Boston schools in compliance with state law on physical education requirements, Johnson replied that the situation “obviously is not the ideal.’’

The state law has provided school districts plenty of wiggle room since it was amended in 1996 to remove the mandatory minimum number of minutes for phys-ed instruction. Johnson suggested teachers can help schools comply with the law by taking students on walks or leading them in stretching exercises or other activities.

The law “doesn’t prevent people from being somewhat creative,’’ she said, noting that many of Boston’s older schools have no gymnasiums or playgrounds.

The state Education Department sent school districts an advisory last year noting that the law “gives school officials considerable flexibility in designing the physical education program.’’ The memo cited instances of school districts satisfying the mandate through independent study or “online physical education.’’

While Boston may lag behind the suburbs, it is not alone in offering only limited physical education options. Statewide only 18.2 percent of high school students in Massachusetts attended phys-ed classes daily and about 60 percent attended classes one or more days during an average week, according to a 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance. The survey did not cover the lower grades.

Deep cuts in physical education in the Boston schools have coincided with the lengthening of class time for English and math to prepare students for MCAS tests.

“The overwhelming majority of professionals we represent think the MCAS has strangled our curriculum at the expense of the children we teach,’’ Boston Teachers Union president Richard Stutman said. “Phys-ed is a major casualty of this ill-advised trend.’’

Deficiencies in phys-ed in the lower grades have seriously impaired efforts to improve athletics in the city’s high schools, according to numerous coaches. Boston teams generally fare much worse competing against better-prepared students from suburban schools.

“The cuts in phys-ed have really hurt us, because kids aren’t learning the fundamentals of sports anymore in the lower grades,’’ said Robert Belle, the former headmaster of Dorchester High School who served last year as athletic coordinator at the complex. “You need to give them that exposure in elementary and middle school.’’

Ross’s survey grew out of his discovery that the Tobin K-8 School in the Mission Hill section of his district did not offer physical education classes. He persuaded the school department in 2007 to place a phys-ed instructor at the school, which has no gymnasium, and helped arrange for students to use the gym at the nearby Tobin Community Center.

Wheelock College athletic director Diana Cutaia is conducting a study on the impact of adding phys-ed at the Tobin. She said preliminary findings affirm that physical education can help reduce violence by promoting teamwork and conflict resolution.

Recent efforts on Beacon Hill to restore mandatory minimum hours of phys-ed instruction in state law have failed. But Ross said he would continue working with legislators as well as health, education, and youth fitness advocates to press for change.

“Sadly, it wasn’t that long ago that children had daily physical education,’’ said Allyson Perron, advocacy director of the American Heart Association in Massachusetts. “I don’t think it would be impossible to get it back.’’

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, a story in Monday’s paper about physical education in Boston public schools erroneously stated that students in grades 6 through 8 at the Murphy K-8 School do not receive physical education. They receive one session per week.