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First graders at the JFK Elementary School in Jamaica Plain played balloon volleyball during gym class yesterday.
First graders at the JFK Elementary School in Jamaica Plain played balloon volleyball during gym class yesterday. (Barry Chin/ Globe Staff)

Lack of physical education weighs heavily on many

Lawmakers consider new requirements

Eunice F. Sirianos is an experienced physical education teacher, a 20-year veteran of the New Bedford public schools. But she doesn't know how she can stop the steady expansion of her fourth-graders' waistlines.

Four years ago, the school district sharply cut back gym classes for elementary school students because of budget constraints and the need to focus on standardized tests. Sirianos now teaches 1,000 children in three schools, and though she strives to learn the names of all her students, her ability to affect their lives has diminished. The children have gym class only once every two weeks or once a month, when a holiday or a school assembly interferes.

She struggles to cram as much as she can into every class, because she knows it is the only time many of her students exercise. The allure of video games and the safety risks of playing outside have made neighborhood games of dodge ball and soccer relics of an earlier era.

When her students had gym more often, only about one-third of her fourth-graders were too heavy, she said.

"Now, over 50 percent of them are either at risk of being overweight or overweight," she said.

Reading the same warning signs, state lawmakers are considering bills that would establish a minimum time commitment to physical education, ranging from 150 minutes to about 200 minutes a week. At a State House hearing yesterday, Sirianos told lawmakers that a renewed commitment to physical education would be "a dream come true."

The bills, however, do not address how much it would cost cities and towns to meet the time requirements, how schools would pay for the increase, and what other part of the curriculum would have to give to make way for more exercise.

A generation ago, physical education was the class everybody loved to hate: the dank locker rooms, the polyester uniforms, the leg-cramping laps around the dusty athletic field. Back then, physical education was the melting pot of public schools, a thrice weekly or even daily ritual that threw together A students and D students, the popular and the unpopular, the athletically gifted and the athletically challenged, unless they had a doctor's note.

That changed in Massachusetts in 1996, when the Board of Education repealed regulations that mandated at least 90 minutes of physical education a week. While students are still required to take physical education, the law does not say how often, and tighter school budgets and more rigorous academic requirements forced many schools to push gym class to the bottom of the priority list. Participation has plummeted: The number of Massachusetts high school students participating at least once a week has dropped from about 80 percent in 1995 to less than 60 percent, according to the Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which asks students about their habits.

Since 1999, when the survey first began assessing students' Body Mass Index, the number of students deemed overweight or at risk of becoming overweight has increased from 22.5 percent to 26.3 percent.

Senator Thomas M. McGee, a Democrat from Lynn, is the lead sponsor of a mandatory physical education bills that would require at least 150 minutes of physical education a week for students in kindergarten through fifth grade and 225 minutes a week for students in grades 6 through 12. In Boston, Councilor Michael Ross has already persuaded the City Council to pass a unanimous resolution supporting McGee's bill and to implement a more rigorous physical education curriculum in the Boston schools.

Only two other states, New York and Illinois, have established minimum time or frequency standards for physical education, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"I think what has happened is people think it's happening in schools and, in reality, it isn't," McGee said, adding that youths aren't getting the exercise they used to outside of school, either. "Not as many kids walk to school anymore. You don't send kids down to the park like you did 30 years ago."

Representative Peter J. Koutoujian, a Democrat from Waltham who has proposed a bill requiring students to get at least 120 hours of physical education or active recess a year, said children are not learning basic components of physical fitness: how to stretch, how to run short and long distances, how to play new games.

"When I grew up, we had neighborhood kids on the street playing football and hockey and basketball and baseball," he said. "Now, you don't really have that. Parents are having to shuttle children around. You can't just learn a new sport in a neighborhood anymore."

McGee said the cost of implementing the new requirements is "obviously . . . an issue we have to deal with." But with the healthcare costs associated with obesity skyrocketing, he said, America cannot afford to continue skipping physical education.

Some school administrators also worry about the demands on children's time. The repeal of the physical education time requirement came a few years after the passage of the state's education reform law, which for the first time required schools to provide a minimum amount of academic instruction time: 900 hours a year in elementary schools and 990 hours a year in secondary schools, according to Heidi Guarino, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

"That led to a tremendous time crunch for districts," she said. "As a result, districts had to make changes in how they were spending their time."

Eileen Morales , principal of the John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Jamaica Plain, said her school probably provides at least 120 hours of activity, nutrition, and wellness instruction already, but with a 6-hour school day, there is no guarantee it could meet a specific state requirement.

"I don't know how feasible all that is," Morales said of the proposed legislation. "You still have to teach math, reading, and social studies. . . . If they're going to make that work, they have to think about extending the day."

But Hiram Colón, a fifth-grader at the school, said his hour of physical education each week seems too short.

"Everything's write, test, write, test," said Colón. "We're just sitting down all day. When we get gym, it's just one day a week."

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story Wednesday about setting physical education standards for all Massachusetts public school students incorrectly said that only two other states, New York and Illinois, have established minimum time or frequency standards for physical education. Those two are the only states that have such standards for all grades, but about 18 states have minimum time or frequency standards at some grade levels, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.