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Slim Gym 

Fit To Live

Sporting a purple-and-white-striped Adidas shirt, Dockers khaki shorts and a pair of sturdy Keen sandals, Tammy Charbonneau is the classic gym teacher. As she preps for P.E. class at Burlington's Champlain Elementary School on a recent Tuesday afternoon, I expect to see her wheel out a squeaky cart of orange dodge balls, or a stack of square, flat, wooden scooters. I can almost feel the itch of my old polyester gym uniforms and my armpits starting to sweat as I wait to be picked for a team.

Charbonneau interrupts my flashback by clicking shut her handheld PDA, on which she's been reviewing today's lesson. "This is not about playing games," she says as a line of squirming first-graders marches across the mouse-gray linoleum in the cafeteria/gymnasium. "This is a classroom."

I can't help but notice the minutes ticking by on the wall clock as Charbonneau crams her lesson into one of the two 30-minute time slots she has with these first-graders each week. Though Burlington schools now benefit from a grant that arms their physical education teachers with PDAs, pedometers and other high-tech tools, no amount of number crunching on nifty handhelds can stretch the thin allotment of time eked out for exercise.

It's a symptom of a national problem. According to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), the percentage of overweight or obese kids in the United States has more than doubled in the last 30 years. But just how - and for how long each day or week - should schools battle this bulge?

In its 2006 Shape of the Nation Report, NASPE recommends that all elementary school students participate in at least 150 minutes per week of physical education; for middle and high school students, it's 225 minutes for the entire school year. With just two 30-minute classes each week, schools such as Champlain Elementary fail the new NASPE standards.

"Administrators have such pressure to develop performance in schools on standardized tests," says Lindsay Simpson Spinney, physical education consultant for the Vermont Department of Education. "Unfortunately, physical education is sort of taking a back seat to that."

In terms of time allotted to P.E., Burlington has improved in the last decade, says Chris Souliere, a P.E. teacher for C.P. Smith Elementary who's been with the school district for nearly 20 years. "For 10 years, it was 20-minute classes - it was ridiculous," says Souliere. "But we still have the minimal requirement in the state of Vermont - Burlington is not up to par."

Simpson Spinney, who helps guide school districts toward appropriate physical education programs, says that quality, not quantity, is what matters. She points to a recent study by Cornell University that found that increasing gym class by 200 minutes each week had a minimal effect on activity levels. "There's no question that students need to be more physically active," she says. "But right now, we're trying to focus on the improvement of quality P.E."

One of the ways to improve physical education, says Simpson Spinney, is to erase old notions of picking teams and playing seemingly pointless games. "We're really trying to move away from the term 'gym class,' because it tends to have negative connotations, especially for folks in the older generation who had a negative experience with P.E.," she says. "And the most important shift is to develop programs that really individualize students' personal fitness."

Thanks to a recent three-year, $500,000 grant from the Carol M. White Physical Education Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, Burlington schools now have the tools to help individualize students' fitness. P.E. teachers benefit from MicroFit Healthstar Manager, a software program that allows them to use handheld PDAs to collect data on everything from flexibility to footsteps tracked on pedometers. The data is shared with other schools so that a child's fitness can be consistently monitored from kindergarten through 10th grade. (Because Vermont requires high schoolers to take only a year and a half of P.E. to graduate, most fizzle by junior year, explains Souliere.)

"We've always been fitness testing, but this makes it easier and more accurate," Souliere says. "And the kids are more aware, because they get a printed report with color graphs that they can share with their families."

What happens to the kids who score poorly? "It's disheartening, especially for the kids who are overweight," acknowledges Souliere. "But I believe in being honest, and it gets the parents focused on health and fitness levels. I've had so many families just turn around their whole lifestyle."

Grant-funded pedometers, says Souliere, help keep elementary kids moving as much as possible in the limited amount of P.E. time. At Champlain Elementary, Charbonneau's first-graders take turns holding each other's feet for sit-ups, then they play tag. In between chasing their classmates, the kids learn lessons on heart rates - and on how to accommodate one boy with disabilities. When Charbonneau asks for volunteers to push his wheelchair, every single hand shoots toward the ceiling. It's a far cry from gym classes where kids who weren't über-jocks were left to sulk on the sidelines.

At Hunt Middle School, teacher Joan Shortsleeve has helped design an alternative P.E. class for overweight or obese kids who are selected based on their body mass indices and invited to participate. "They're very happy to be in the class," says Shortsleeve. "It's a way to participate with like-sized peers in a small, supportive setting."

The federal grant has also allowed Burlington to buy equipment that may foster a lifelong appreciation of physical fitness, such as yoga mats, hand weights and physio balls. When the snow flies this winter, elementary, middle and high school students will have a chance to tramp around school grounds or glide on the trails of Ethan Allen Park, thanks to new snowshoes and cross-country skis.

Such activities, says Simpson Spinney, do more than teach Vermont kids how to be active in their own backyards and tackle weight-control issues. They also help students develop the confidence they need to excel in school and perform well on the standardized tests that can gobble up precious school time.

"It doesn't have to be an either/or situation," says Simpson Spinney. "Physical education can go hand in hand with a strong academic focus and performance. Students who are physically active are going to be more alert in class and have better focus - and that can lead to better scores."

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Sarah Tuff Dunn

Sarah Tuff Dunn

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Sarah Tuff Dunn is a frequent contributor to Seven Days and its monthly parenting publication, Kids VT. She is the co-author of 101 Best Outdoor Towns.

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