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Schools set to weigh in on fitness

Hub to hire more phys ed teachers

Richard Stutman, Boston teachers union boss, said the ability to offer phys ed has long been limited by space and time. Richard Stutman, Boston teachers union boss, said the ability to offer phys ed has long been limited by space and time.
By Chelsea Conaboy
Globe Staff / June 9, 2011

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Two of every five children in Boston’s public schools weigh more than they should. But 30 percent of the district’s schools offer no physical education classes.

Now, school administrators are promising to do more to bridge the gap between what is needed and what is available to address a health problem that has been declared a national crisis.

The district yesterday announced that it will hire more physical education teachers so that 106 schools can offer PE. This year, only 94 of the district’s 134 schools offered those classes.

In the past year, the district received $4.6 million, primarily from the US Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to address student fitness and nutrition.

“If you want to improve academics of students, you also have to look at their health, because healthy children are better able to learn,’’ said Jill Carter, executive director of the district’s Health and Wellness Department. “We’re dealing with achievement gaps that sort of overlap or are in some way affected by health disparities.’’

The district’s finding that 40 percent of students are overweight or obese came from physical assessments students receive every three years in school.

State law requires that students in every grade be taught physical education but does not specify how much. That loophole means many students never dribble a ball during the school day. A CDC survey found that 73 percent of Boston high school students do not get the recommended one hour of activity per day — at school or at home.

Under the new plan, called Healthy Connections, the district will change the fitness curriculum. Four instructors were hired this year to travel to schools and instruct teachers how to make gym class a better workout. A traditional baseball game, for example, would be replaced in elementary and middle school by “all-run’’ baseball, in which one person bats, but all team members run. They keep running until the team in the field knocks down a series of cones.

Because space is an issue at many schools — about half have no gymnasium, Carter said — the district is training “wellness champions’’ at each school who will look for ways to help get youngsters moving at recess, for example.

Healthy Connections also aims to make food at school events more nutritious and to reduce tobacco use.

Improving student health has been a major focus of the district since about 2006, said Carter. She was the only district employee focused on wellness about a year ago and now oversees a staff of 15 people.

Like many urban school districts whose budgets have been perpetually squeezed, “a focus on student wellness had not been at the core’’ of the district’s mission for many years, said Anne McHugh, director of the Boston Public Health Commission chronic disease prevention division, which oversees obesity programs and helped the school district secure the federal grant money.

She said the district has shifted its priorities, “recognizing that school is where children and youth spend a lot of their time and that it is a double-win for their health and for improving their learning.’’

Carter could not say last night which schools without PE programs will get them in the fall.

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said the city’s ability to offer physical education has long been limited by space and time. The singular focus on preparing students for state standardized tests has amplified the problem, he said.

“Whether they’re lacking physical education or they’re lacking art or they’re lacking music, they’re lacking alternatives to standard math and English,’’ he said.

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com.